By Kayla Canne
The City of Sydney refused to release city records containing information on a public event to the City Hub last week, claiming that the information was private in nature.
On March 13 City Hub filed a formal application under the Government Information Public Access Act (GIPA) seeking the guest list of the Lord Mayor’s New Year’s Eve party — a public function which is funded by ratepayers — along with the total cost of the event.
The party is VIP-only and is held at the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House every year, where guests are provided with free drinks, canapés and stunning views of the Harbour Bridge.
City Hub was informed that the GIPA application must be processed and decided upon within 20 working days of lodging the request, but on April 13 we received a letter requesting a two-week extension on the notice of decision due to a backlog of information requests that the City could not keep up with.
The letter also requested a deposit of $150 which would not be refunded, even if the City decided not to release the documents we were after. The letter did not state a new decision date, and only after further inquiry were we told that the additional time requested would start after the fee was paid.
A City of Sydney spokesperson would not say how many requests are delayed or how many individuals are charged these extra deposits, and would only say that these acts are allowed through current GIPA legislation.
On April 21 we received notice that the City denied part of our information request. The City would not release the guest list for the event because of an “overriding public interest against disclosure of some of the information,” the notice of decision read.
This comes after the same notice of decision stated earlier on in the document that there is a “general right of the public to have access to government information held in agencies”.
Now, the City is charging City Hub another $60 to release the cost of the event, at the same time that they are refusing to release part of the documents requested.
The Lord Mayor Clover Moore passed an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) in 2006 which increased public disclosure of government contracts.
When she took office, the Lord Mayor vowed to have a more open and transparent council and city than ever. Since then, she has repeatedly announced that she is “deeply concerned about government transparency and accountability”.
In 2008, City of Sydney media specialist Matthew Moore, who was then working as the FoI editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, shared a “refreshing” letter from Stephen Brown, who for 15 years was head of the legal services branch of the Defence Department. Mr Brown handled similar FoI and GIPA requests throughout his work, and said he was frustrated by the lack of authority he had when making decisions to release information.
“The problem, of course, was that under the department’s FoI arrangements, the decision-making authority about release rested with the functional area connected with the documents sought,” Mr Brown wrote.
“Managers in those areas had a very strong tendency to put up the shutters, using such obvious techniques as delaying decisions, overstating the time involved in locating documents and deciding upon them and failing to consult applicants in order to refine requests.”
City Hub publisher Lawrence Gibbons said he was deeply concerned about these “censoring tactics”, saying the government was essentially charging the public to look for documents that they wouldn’t release.
The refusal of these documents was based on the claim that there was “overriding public interest against disclosure of the information” contradicting the very nature of freedom of information requests, especially considering the information requested concerns a public event funded by Sydney’s residents.
The City Hub is seeking legal advice into the matter.