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What can council do to make the City of Sydney a more open and transparent government?

Talking Heads in City News asked Michael Gormly & Andrew Woodhouse to respond to the question in City News of 19 October 2008.


Sydney politics is littered with the wraiths of buried documents. But simply demanding better access to them does not address the deeper problem: that council staff create and possess the documents in the first place because they set the agendas and control the projects.

While the “City of Villages” brand emblazons council literature, it’s a mere slogan compared with real community-centred models such as Seattle’s “City of Neighborhoods”.

In 1988 Seattle created a Department of Neighborhoods which set about hiring organisers rather than planners. Their job was to liaise with the many community groups who were typically in conflict with authorities – as they tend to be here.

In a grass-roots process, organisers brought groups together in town meetings which brainstormed ideas. Each area came up with unique projects, diversifying and enriching the city’s texture.

The city provided “matching funds” which allowed groups to hire their own planners to develop proposals to approval stage. Volunteer time was counted towards matching these funds but some projects also involved serious fund raising.

Council then approved and funded projects, realising not only the usual street upgrades but also a lot of affordable, sustainable housing, civic facilities and even an art project that painted faux main street businesses onto empty shopfronts which sparked urban renewal.

Thousands of volunteers gave their time. Different people worked on different projects with a finish point, far more engaging than our pattern of endless meetings and often fruitless lobbying.

This strengthened the community, reduced crime, boosted economies and engaged marginalised people and youth.

Importantly, the ideas came from an initial consultation whereas Sydney typically cherrypicks community input to find support for projects already on their agenda, then holds “consultation” meetings to sell projects, designed by council to a highly uniform style and predetermined budget.

Any input contrary to the existing agenda is ignored, no matter how popular or well argued – for instance the coming “upgrade” of Fitzroy Gardens in Kings Cross, to say nothing of the granite/smartpole/banner uniformity that stifles Sydney's streets.

Not one council candidate at the recent elections campaigned on this key issue. What a shame.

Michael Gormly, writer, photographer and publisher of


If knowledge is power, then council is all-powerful. It controls what we know, what we see and therefore what we think. It is the ultimate “thought control” machine.

Do you know how much council receives in rates or how much councillors are paid? Answers: $100 million pa; $25k pa including GST. Why are tender project amounts secreted away like Aunty’s lace knickers? What’s the cost of the new, on-street steel entertainment info pillars being implanted this week? Why are recommendations about DAs from the high-powered, high-paid, Urban Design Review Panel, costing $100k pa, not fully released? The vexed DA for “Deepdene”, Elizabeth Bay, for a large sky penthouse overshadowing neighbours which breached height and density controls, is a case in point.

We’re treated like chooks and only thrown pellets of information. Why are council background reports always late? Last week they were unavailable at midday in hard copy the day before committee meetings.

Has council forgotten the “golden rule”? “Those who pay the gold [rates], rule.“

Where's our right to know, or is the “public interest” just the interested public? It's actually about us and what affects us.

Knowledge is like justice: it needs to be delivered and to be seen to be delivered. Am I asking too many questions? Good.

A fully informed public has a sense of belonging to its council, which must be better for everyone. Council should provide more transparency than an airport x-ray security scanner, security data exempted.

So try these for starters: allow the public to attend pre-DA briefings by planners and experts' panel meetings, publish developer meetings with staff, release Heritage Experts' reports and Urban Design Review Panel reports, advertise amended DAs to all those possibly affected, publish DA files on line and be damned, appoint an independent Ombudsman, video council meetings live on-line, allow petitions to be lodged directly, abolish the so-called FOI, ”Freedom of Information” section, really the Frustration of Information section. If “freedom of information' exists, why does it need to be censored?

There is no transparency or accountability without accessibility. Less it not more. After all, whose council is it? Ours or theirs?

Andrew Woodhouse is a Potts Point local and urban environmentalist