The Macleay College Newsroom’s Statewatch team has gained public support for its investigation into local government transparency following news coverage on ABC's 7.30 Program.
Statewatch is a team of journalism students investigating local spending and operations. The investigation involves the request of council documents and information to promote public security on council actions.
Local councillors, community groups and members of the public have contacted The Newsroom in recent weeks following ABC’s 7.30 Report.
“7:30 received a strong response from members of the public looking to find out about council expenses in their local areas,” a 7.30 Report spokesman said.
The Statewatch team is now working with a number of sources who have come forward with a genuine interest in increasing council transparency. Sources have supplied information that details ongoing and systematic mismanagement at several councils in NSW.
Among those who contacted the team was John Richardson, secretary of the Bega Valley Shire Residents and Ratepayers Association, who highlighted the importance of the project.
“What you, as journalism students, are doing is extremely important,” he said.
He noted the difficulties in attaining information from councils and detailed ongoing “stumbling blocks” that he and his association have encountered, including what he described as an “entrenched” attitude of withholding information at the senior levels of council.
“I believe the whole system [of applying for information] is there to discourage people,” Mr Richardson said.
Former Hurstville city councillor Anne Wagstaff also told The Newsroom she believed applying to councils for information – even from within her own – was extremely difficult.
Mrs Wagstaff detailed ongoing flaws in reporting of information that afforded a lack of public scrutiny at the council.
“I’d been elected to ask questions but I was put down, I was ignored or the information given wasn’t adequate,” Mrs Wagstaff said of her experience with Hurstville.
The Statewatch investigation is currently focusing on several areas of concern, including the correct reporting of gifts, benefits of personal interests among councillors and senior Abbey Missoistrative staff. Incorrect reporting of gifts at State Government level recently led to the resignation of NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell, highlighting the importance of the issue.