THE Information and Privacy Commission issued a recommendation to Council to review their decision not to release emails to scone.com.au and when the matter was referred to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) the IPC sent their own legal representation to argue Council needed to release them. Council spent $14,000 of ratepayers money not only arguing with scone.com.au to avoid releasing the emails, but also with the IPC who wrote and oversee the legislation!! Not surprisingly, NCAT ordered Council to hand over the emails.
FOR years I have been privy to leaked emails that Council staff and Councillors have written about me and the often highly emotive tirades and tantrums, just made me laugh. But when it came to my attention that I may not be the only person they were treating this way, I stopped laughing.
When I worked in government I adhered to the Triple M rule: never say or do anything you wouldn’t be willing to stand in front of the Media, a Magistrate or a Minister to explain. Anything you put in writing as a public servant is accessible under freedom of information, so anything you write you must understand, could be published or given to the person it was written about.
In April last year I decided I wanted all of the information Council held which referenced me or my business. I had simply hoped, falsely, that it may cause some mild embarrassment for Council, which would ensure they changed their ways and didn’t write such emails about anyone else. But they fought tooth and nail and spent $14,000 of ratepayers money in legal fees to prevent me from getting emails they held about me.
I was also aware Council did not keep records appropriately as required under the Information and Privacy Act; they commonly referred to me as “the blogger”, a school-yard name-calling badge I wore with pride. But it means when the organisation conducts a search for “Elizabeth Flaherty”, they won’t find any of the derogatory emails they had written. Armed with this, I stipulated they must also produce emails with “blog” and “the blogger”. That search produced thousands of emails over the five-year term of this Council. And so began a long, drawn-out game with Council of refining the searches.
In the end I decided to narrow the search to allow them to redact anything which wasn’t directly related to me and went from a five-year period, to less than a five-month period, which returned 5,581 emails! They refused access on the grounds there were too many emails to read through. I refined the search again. I had many leaked emails over the years, but I decided to hone-in on one Mayor Wayne Bedggood had written a few months before and best demonstrated the nature of Council’s behaviours.
Council returned the search, with only a handful of inane emails, but not the example from the Mayor. I knew Cr Abbott and Cr Watts were in the email from the Mayor and I told them I had seen the email and asked if they would swear a statutory declaration this email existed. They gladly told the truth and signed a statutory declaration which was given in evidence.
The Information and Privacy Commission recommended Council review their decision, but Council still didn’t release the Mayor’s email. The matter was then referred to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT).
Because the Council argued the information was highly confidential, even citing terrorism and police laws, my representative John Preston (who represented scone.com.au for free) and I were not even allowed to hear the evidence or view the email in NCAT. Thankfully the Privacy Commissioner sent their own legal representative to NCAT to argue for release of the emails to me and they could not be blocked from the closed session. Council were actually arguing against the IPC, which wrote the legislation they must adhere to!
More than $14,000 worth or ratepayer money Council spent on legal fees later, NCAT ruled Council needed to release the emails.
The emails provided:
Email 1: What Council didn’t provide:
Council fully redacted, a full-page email from Mayor Wayne Bedggood. We considered returning Council’s information to the Senior Member at NCAT to force them to adhere to NCAT’s orders properly, but since I already had a leaked copy I thought it would be simpler to explain what it contained.
It was a tirade from the Mayor to Cr Watts reprimanding her for speaking to me about Australia Day, while he was away at the horse sales in Queensland, where he had enjoyed a great sale and was enraged on his return to find Cr Watts had spoken to me and I had written a story without his knowledge. SERIOUSLY, you need to read this story to see what prompted the Mayor’s tirade which comes next: Australia Day Nominees Announced.
Email 2: Cr Watts responded to Mayor Bedggood’s email at 10:17am, with the following:
My apologies I gave a verbal comment to Liz about Australia Day and she has published the story before I spoke to you.
It is positive, again I learn from mistakes.
Email 3: Mayor Bedggood responded to Cr Watts, all Councillors and the general manager at 7:10pm with the following:
Thank you for letting council know of your communications.
Please don’t bother apologising, the Blogger is your friend/associate and if you feel you need to talk to them there is nothing we can do about it.
I would ask that you don’t qualify your report by stating that “You learn by your mistakes”. This has happened repeatedly over seven years and I am over worrying about it.
You have told me repeatedly over the seven years that, “You say what you think” – I would hope that by now you known that so do I?
What I think is that The Blogger is one of, if not the, most despicable people I have ever dealt with and that they have no moral compass at all. They are also one of the most hypocritical, vindictive and disingenuous individuals I have dealt with. This will come as no surprised to you and yet you chose to continue with your relationship with this person and when I ask for support to defend by reputation, which I rarely ever do, you decline.
So please don’t send me sugar coated B.S. disguised as a sweets, because it doesn’t ring true – you can’t be on both sides in this case, you have chosen a side.
(Two paragraphs omitted). You deal with whoever you with Lee, but report it all to the GM please – (omitted content).
Upper Hunter Shire Council.
4: Email of complaint from Cr Sue Abbott to the General Manager and Councillors.
I am concerned about the content of this email which is an attack on both Cr Lee Watts and Ms Liz Flaherty.
There is no excuse for this behaviour – an email like this is unacceptable.
How will the Upper Hunter Shire Council propose to resolve this matter and ensure such behaviour does not persist?
5: Ron Campbell weighs in…
Steve…I have read cr. Abbott comment and will not submit to its contents.lLiz Flarity and cr watts should be held accountable for their comments.
It is noted that as soon as they are required to give an account then cr abbott objects.
(Sentence omitted by Council)
Just to recap, this is the story Cr Campbell feels I need to be held to account for: Australia Day Award Nominees. And here is a story an independent Code of Conduct reviewer recommended Cr Campbell be accountable for: (Editorial: Campbell found to be verbally abusive and harassing).
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE…
Council has spent more than $9,000 of ratepayers money trying to prevent scone.com.au from accessing the Geotechnical Report on the Merriwa-Willow Tree Road and a further $14,000 trying to prevent me accessing emails they have written about me.
My hope was this exercise would make them accountable for their actions, ensure Council stop writing such things about anyone else without their knowledge and ensure people can access information they are entitled to, has clearly been futile.
Verona Bruin is now battling Council to obtain documents showing Council knew there was an issue with their tree which fell on her house, causing more than $20,000 damage, which Council refuse to pay for (Read: Council hides tree information). Council have said they can’t find any such documents. People who have complained to Council have all signed statutory declarations to testify Council were notified of their concerns. This month Council passed a motion to increase information access fees. Council now want to charge pensioner Verona Bruin, not the standard $30, but more than $400, for her to secure the documents which prove Council’s negligence. Ms Bruin has lodged a complaint with the IPC and so the process begins again! How much more ratepayer money will Council soon spend in NCAT trying to fight pensioner Verona Bruin?
And by no means was Mayor Bedggood the only Councillor who has acted in this way using Council resources, I’ve seen plenty from other Councillors, but I can say I have never seen any emails from Cr Abbott and Cr Watts which are inappropriate about residents or ratepayers.
Here’s one more thread from Cr Fisher provided by NCAT. Again, there was a redacted section, but I didn’t think it was worth pursing…you get the idea of Council’s culture from what you can read.
Email 1: Cr Fisher congratulates Daele Healy (former media advisor) for a story in the Scone Advocate.
Email 2: Deale Healy to Cr Fisher: Thank you. I’m getting the distinct feeling management think all the bad media is my fault.
Email 3: Cr Fisher to Daele Healey:
We know that’s not the case. If they are I’ll disabuse them of the notion. We have a psychotic blogger, (section omitted) conspiring on an organisation not set up to deal with their game. Call me if I can help!
The “game” is accountability and transparency and I’m afraid Cr Fisher is correct, Council are not set up to deal with that “game”.