Questions about the integrity of decision-making by Redland City Council’s Mayor Karen Williams, CEO Bill Lyon and General Counsel Andrew Ross are raised in a scathing report by the Ombudsman.
What the Ombudsman said
The Ombudsman is an independent officer, reporting directly to State Parliament, who investigates complaints about the administrative actions of public sector agencies.
In his report, the Ombudsman says:
The purpose of commencing this investigation was to explore how council responded to negative comments by its constituents on social media, and to decide whether these actions were fair and reasonable in the circumstances.
The Ombudsman’s investigation found that Redland City Council’s actions in threatening defamation proceedings against two residents were unreasonable.
The investigation further found that Council’s actions in threatening to take defamation action against the complainants were:
• based on a lack of clear analysis regarding who, if anybody, was defamed by the comments
• not based on instructions from any of the allegedly defamed parties
• not a reasonable or proportional response to what was relatively minor criticism of council’s decisions
The Ombudsman found instances where Council’s decision-making, including decisions regarding expenditure on legal advice, were not adequately documented.
Comments by the Ombudsman in his report include:
The fact that key decisions were not documented makes it difficult for me to assess these decisions and make a clear determination about many of the issues I identified in this report. Failing to document a decision also undermines its integrity. As a government agency, council is required under the Public Records Act to ensure its decisions are documented to uphold the public sector’s values of accountability and transparency.
Council also spent public money to obtain external legal advice to determine whether the comments made by Complainant A and Complainant B were defamatory. Given the lack of documented decisions and other significant flaws I have identified in council’s approach, it would be difficult to say this was an appropriate use of public funds.
Whose account should be trusted?
The Ombudsman’s report notes contradictions between accounts given by the Mayor, CEO and General Counsel regarding the extent to which the Mayor was involved in making decisions which led to unreasonable letters being sent to residents.
From the interviews conducted with the Mayor, the CEO and General Counsel, it is clear that no one shared a consistent view about the approach taken by council.
The Ombudsman’s recommendations
Recommendations by the Ombudsman include that Council:
- write to both complainants and withdraw the threat to take legal action in response to the comments published on social media
- write to Complainant B and acknowledge that the decision to write to her employer was based on the mistaken belief she had published defamatory material using her professional email account
The Ombudsman’s findings and recommendations are set out in The Redland City Council Defamation Report which was made public in early January 2017.
For context, the Ombudsman’s 2015/16 Annual Report notes that he received more than 7,000 specific complaints and conducted more than 1,100 investigations.
Very occasionally (2 to 4 times per year) the Ombudsman publishes investigative reports (like the one just published about Redland City Council) to inform the public “about serious systemic issues and make recommendations to improve decision-making practices”.
What Council should be doing
Learning from mistakes is an important part of organisational improvement but it seems Redland City Council is in denial, refusing to accept that its behaviour was unreasonable and its decision making processes inadequate.
The divisional councillors, who appear to have had no involvement in this sorry saga, should be demanding full accountability from the Mayor and CEO at the next Council general meeting on Wednesday 25 January.
The full Council should consider if the Ombudsman’s recommendations have yet been complied with, and discuss if Council should go further and formally apologise to the residents who were sent threatening letters.
The Ombudsman’s report questions the truthfulness of one or more of the Mayor, CEO and General Counsel. This should greatly concern the Redlands community and is a matter which councillors should explore further.
Given the lack of integrity exposed by the Ombudsman, councillors must address the need for improvements to how decisions are made and documented at Redland City Council.
Redlands2030 – 23 January 2017
Updated at 6:36 pm, by addition of the last two paragraphs in the section with the heading: “The Ombudsman’s recommendations”