Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Clarence Valley Council administration spat the dummy and is now hiding behind closed doors

It is often said, only partly in jest, that the form of local government Clarence Valley Council General Manager Scott Greensill favours has no elected representatives and a population of silent, almost invisible ratepayers and residents.

Since Greensill became the head of local government administration in the valley in 2011, a number of council policies have been created which in whole or part limit the ability of local people to seek explanations from council or to follow through on complaints they have lodged.

One of the most recent was Clarence Valley Council Unreasonable complainant conduct (21 July 2015):

Unreasonable complainant conduct (UCC) is any behaviour by a current or former complainant which, because of its nature or frequency raises substantial health, safety, resource or equity issues for our organisation, our staff, other service users and complainants or the complainant himself/herself. UCC can be divided into five categories of conduct:
* Unreasonable persistence
* Unreasonable demands
* Unreasonable lack of cooperation
* Unreasonable arguments
* Unreasonable behaviours

Unreasonable persistence is continued, incessant and unrelenting conduct by a complainant that has a disproportionate and unreasonable impact on our organisation, staff, services, time and/or resources. Some examples of unreasonably persistent behaviour include:

* An unwillingness or inability to accept reasonable and logical explanations including final decisions that have been comprehensively considered and dealt with.
* Persistently demanding a review simply because it is available and without arguing or presenting a case for one. 
* Pursuing and exhausting all available review options when it is not warranted and refusing to accept further action cannot or will not be taken on their complaints.
* Reframing a complaint in an effort to get it taken up again.
* Bombarding our staff/organisation with phone calls, visits, letters, and emails (including cc'd correspondence) after repeatedly being asked not to do so.
* Contacting different people within our organisation and/or externally to get a different outcome or more sympathetic response to their complaint - internal and external forum shopping.

The latest to fall foul of this notion of an ‘ideal’ local government appears to be a Facebook group called The Clarence Forum, which has been effectively banned by Council administration since late 2015.

Based on current forum membership (1,193) and the written communication figure found in the article below, alleged communication between council and the forum equates to est. 1.7 instances per forum member over a two-year period.

One wonders if The Clarence Forum will call Council’s bluff and use crowd funding to raise that money the general manager is now demanding to answer letters/emails from Mr.Hagger or the group.

The story so far......

Clarence Valley Independent, online edition, February 2016:

Clarence Valley Council’s (CVC) general manager, Scott Greensill, has written to Facebook-based group, The Clarence Forum, saying its convenor, John Hagger, is taking up too much of council staff’s time answering his enquiries.

The end result appears to be that any further information requests from the forum and Mr Hagger would most likely have to be made on a formal Government Information (Public Access) (GIPA) form accompanied by a $30 fee.

Mr Hagger received a subsequent letter from the council’s organisation performance and governance unit executive manager, Kristian Enevoldson, regarding correspondence from works and civil director Troy Anderson.

Not satisfied with a response about the council’s current fleet review, Mr Hagger subsequently asked: “Please explain how answering questions asked would be against the Public Interest Test as mandated under the GIPA Act and how is there an overriding public interest against public disclosure?”

Mr Enevoldson replied: “The GIPA Act is specific to formal GIPA applications and not to informal applications, or general emails or other correspondence to Council.

“As explained in Council’s Access to Council Documents policy, if an informal application for the record is made under the GIPA Act then Council has the discretion whether or not to provide access.

“Should you then decide to lodge a formal GIPA application this would then be assessed against the GIPA criteria, including the public interest test.”

Mr Enevoldson was referring to Section 8 (3) of the GIPA Act, Informal release of government information, which states among its six clauses that: “An agency cannot be required to disclose government information pursuant to an informal request and cannot be required to consider an informal request for government information.”

The Clarence Forum, which states it is a “group dedicated to providing a platform for ideas dedicated to enriching our Valley”, had, at the time of writing, 1157 members.

Apart from Mr Hagger, there are four other moderators/administrators for The Clarence Forum.

Mr Greensill says the council’s record system has revealed that “written communications between Council and yourself [Mr Hagger and the forum] has exceeded 700” and that he is aware of “numerous telephone calls [that] are not included in these figures”.

He also states that Mr Hagger has subsequently “published the responses [on the forum] with the officer being publically named; furthermore, the response provided then has often been the subject of unfair and misinformed criticism and often taken out of context and/or misrepresented”.

“I consider that your action of publishing the responses in such a manner is contra to the good faith that has been extended to you,” Mr Greensill wrote.

Mr Hagger said that the forum is a democratic meeting place for people to discuss and air their views, based on whatever information (or not) he receives as a result of his enquiries.

“Other people are entitled to draw whatever conclusion they want based on the evidence,” he said.

“I’ve got no control over other people’s thinking.

“It’s the evidence the council themselves present.

“It’s up to council to present their case; I can’t do that for them.”

Discussions on the forum, however, are not limited to Mr Hagger’s posts – any member can post information or subjects they view as important, informative or interesting.

Mr Hagger said that his practice of posting enquiries and responses verbatim allows people to make their own judgements.

“There are some advantages with social media that just aren’t there with other media,” he said.

“It supplies a venue where the information [posted] is as raw and accurate as possible.

“The problem we often have is council’s refusal to supply more detailed documentation – that’s what we are aiming for, which is something that is missing in traditional media for various reasons; one of which is constraints of size.

“We don’t have that, we can put a 400-page document up and people can choose to read it if they have time.”

On the ‘excessive’ number of enquiries made, Mr Hagger disputes the total of 700; however, he assumes that this number includes interagency emails and other miscellaneous short enquiries.

Mr Hagger posted a record of the enquiries, he says he has made to CVC, on the forum on January 29 (along with a copy of Mr Greensill’s letter), which amounted to 63 enquiries since February 2014; however, the bulk of enquiries began in April 2015.

Mr Hagger said the council has not responded “to mail sent after the 16th of December 2015”.

Information regarding the GIPA Act can be viewed and/or downloaded from the Information and Privacy Commission NSW’s website: www.ipc.nsw.gov.au.

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