Wes Fang criticises Wagga City Council for refusing GIPA request

The head of Wagga’s ratepayers group says council needs to turn its image around after it refused a freedom of information request.

Wes Fang said his request for an internal email was rejected by council staff, but when he followed it up with the NSW Information & Privacy Commission (IPC) he was told that refusal “was not justified”.

“This reinforces the belief that council is not being open, honest and transparent,” Mr Fang said. “It concerns me that these requests should be a mainstay of council but they can’t even get that right, it's quite serious when council can’t process these things correctly.”

The email Mr Fang requested was sent within council’s planning department in 2016 and he believed it could “shed light on some important issues”.

The Government Information Public Access (GIPA) Act provides the general public with a “freedom of information” power. However, while there were certain circumstances where agencies could refuse access, the IPC was not satisfied council had satisfied those conditions.

Councillor Paul Funnell said if council was trying to rebuild public confidence through transparency and accountability, the refusal of Mr Fang’s request was a bad look.

“A member of the public has acted within his rights and again, council has been found wanting,” Cr Funnell said.

“I would like to see the acting general manager take a look at this situation and deal with the issue to achieve an acceptable outcome.

“If releasing the email would in any way jeopardise anything then he should speak to the applicant about why, but people are fed up with a lack of transparency from governments at every level – not just ours – and this freedom of information law is for the people who foot the bill for government.”

Councillor Tim Koschel agreed it was a bad look for council and said the organisation needed to be open with the community.

“One of the things I ran on was openness and I believe we need to be transparent on all issues to do with council,” he said. “If this is something council got wrong we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Acting general manager Robert Knight was not available for comment.

A council spokeswoman said council would not publicly comment on particular applications, “especially when the statutory process is still underway”.

Read council’s full statement below

Applications made to the City of Wagga Wagga under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPA Act) for access to government information held by the City of Wagga Wagga are subject to a statutory process. The City of Wagga Wagga does not publicly comment on particular applications, especially when the statutory process is still underway.

By way of general comment, a person who has made an access application to the Council under the GIPA Act and who is aggrieved by the Council’s decision in relation to the application is entitled in certain circumstances to have the decision reviewed by the Information Commissioner. On review, the Information Commissioner may make such recommendations to the Council about the decision as the Information Commissioner thinks appropriate, including regarding the substance of the Council’s original decision or the procedures followed by the Council in making the decision. The Information Commissioner can remit a matter to the Council recommending the making of a new decision on either substantive or procedural grounds.

Your email refers to advice received from the NSW Information & Privacy Commission that a decision to reject a GIPA application ‘was not justified’. Again, without commenting on a particular application, in the interests of fair and accurate reporting of matters in the media, it is important to note that the phrase quoted, depending on the context of a particular application and its review by the Information Commissioner, could refer to a procedural matter relating to the making of the original decision rather than imply any criticism of the substance of the actual decision. Where the Information Commissioner’s recommendation to the Council is to make a new decision and in so doing address a procedural matter, it is open to the Council in appropriate cases to make a new decision that is substantively the same as the original decision.

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