Earlier this week the councillors were given an update on the Village Hub and I am satisfied with recent progress. Having said that I want to talk about confidentiality and communication as they both affect the way that the public perceives the project.
At the moment much of the project remains confidential because it is against the public interest for particular details to be released. We are negotiating with potential developers to see which one can give us the best design at the best cost, and it is inappropriate for them to see each other’s designs and costings. If developers knew what each other were proposing, they would work less hard to produce a good design and/or offer an inferior price, and it is ultimately you as the ratepayer that loses out (by tens of millions of dollars).
However the project has been plagued throughout its life with poor communication which I believe has been less frequent and detailed than it could be. Members of the public are keen to hear what’s going on with Council’s biggest project to date (biggest in size, biggest in cost, biggest in success and/or failure) and for council to sometimes not provide an update for well over half a year is disappointing. Also, sometimes council votes on village hub-related matters but all of the file attachments are flagged as confidential. And in the absence of regular communication, members of the public start to speculate in unhelpful ways.
What’s frustrating for me as an individual councillor is that I’ve done the best that I can to improve project communication. With the mode of communication, I asked for more information to be made available on our website and this has been done. I also asked that council provide a regular project status report on major projects and initiatives, and this has also been done (but unfortunately with content that is bare minimum rather than informative). But I also believe that sometimes council has been excessive in marking project-related documents as confidential and I have sometimes voted in dissent to excessive confidentiality.
In recent years, Support Lindfield sought for confidential documents to be made public through a freedom of information process (which any member of the public has the right to do). It somehow ended up in the legal system and the tribunal decided that 5 out of 47 documents should be released (i.e. not confidential). The cost of the legal action from council’s side was close to $80,000, and while it is unfortunate that so much money had to be spent to defend the confidentiality of these documents, I think that the costs could have easily been avoided had council been more transparent with the project and had council made various reports available to public when they obviously should have been. By applying the confidential flag to any and every document regardless of its content, public trust had been undermined. And while we have a former-mayor actively trying to cast poor light on this incident with Support Lindfield, I think it’s ironic that she fails to realise that this incident would not have occurred had communication been more transparent under her leadership.
I’ve noticed that things have improved under the two more recent mayors and I will continue to advocate behind the scenes for information to be made available where appropriate. The information about the project will be available through council’s website, through items reported in council meetings, and through messages from council’s spokesperson (the mayor). I’m not going to say anything beyond what information has officially been released.