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Rise in complaints about confidential or sensitive information

Recent complaints data has shown disturbing cases of councillors leaking information for personal or political reasons and ignoring the serious impact that it has on the business of council and the confidence of the community.

Complaints related to the release of confidential information have increased in 2018/19 and recent Inspectorate investigations have revealed some troubling cases of repeat disclosures of confidential information by councillors to members of the public or the media. The effect of this behaviour is serious and unauthorised disclosures have the potential to harm the council’s reputation and its business of providing community services.

Over the past two years, the Inspectorate has completed complex investigations and commenced proceedings against councillors, including East Gippsland Shire’s Ben Buckley, who was suspended by a Councillor Conduct Panel for four months for serious misconduct related to leaking confidential information, and former Murrindindi Shire councillor Chris Healy, who was convicted on five counts of misuse of position for making improper use of information.

The Inspectorate recently charged a South Gippsland Shire Councillor with misuse of information and further details will be provided once allegations have been aired in court. The Municipal Monitor at South Gippsland identified confidential information leaks as, at worst, reflecting a "blatant disregard for the law and the damaging consequences for those provided it". Many other alleged releases have not reached the prosecution threshold, with a common obstacle being the ability to conclusively prove the identity of the person releasing the information.

Councillors have access to sensitive or commercial-in-confidence documents that should not, for legal, financial or other reasons, be made public at that time. Councillors are expected to abide by the requirements of the Local Government Act 1989 and their council's policies and code of conduct. The Inspectorate has responsibility under current legislation to accept complaints about a councillor or member of a special committee disclosing confidential information or misusing their position by making improper use of information.

Councillors and the administration need to be clear on when information is confidential under the Act. Councillors must be aware of their responsibilities under section 77 of the Act and the penalties for unauthorised disclosure. Items that have been designated confidential by a council CEO are generally labelled as such to protect contractual, personal, legal or other prejudicial information.

A previous article discussed access to and designation of confidential information and provided a case study on what can occur when that information is publicly released. As mentioned in the article, council codes of conduct often contain strict rules around confidentiality and are largely sufficient in maintaining good behaviour. More information on the legislative requirements and best practices is available on pages 49 and 59 of the Good Governance Guide, created by Local Government Victoria in collaboration with MAV, VLGA and LGPro.