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The ANC-led eThekwini council has been accused of “using and abusing” the Municipal Structures Act to keep information away from the media and out of the public eye.
Opposition parties said they were concerned with the increasing number of reports, which were meant to be released publicly, but were being discussed behind closed doors.
In recent months, the media has, on numerous occasions, been told to leave the city’s executive committee boardroom to allow the council to discuss reports with no substantial reasons put forward about why the reports were “confidential”.
Reports that were tabled in-camera recently include the Manase and Associates forensic report, the city’s organisational structure and an abridged version of a report by Strauss Daly Attorneys pertaining to aspects of the Manase report.
Minority Front councillor Patrick Pillay said there should be no discussions taking place in camera unless there were |exceptional circumstances.
“As an institution elected by the people of eThekwini, we should be transparent and not exclude ratepayers from all processes of the municipality,” he said.
DA caucus leader Tex Collins said only reports dealing with personnel and individuals should be confidential.
“The Manase report should not be in committee because the contents of the report concern ratepayers… These reports are discussed in committee, because the ANC wants to hide things or political influence is being brought to bear,” he said.
eThekwini Speaker Logie Naidoo said reports that were sensitive in nature “relating to personnel” were discussed in committee because the council had to protect staff.
“Other instances when issues are discussed in committee are when the committee is dealing with confidential documents, such as investigations or reports that deal with individuals. People can turn around and sue council – even if they have transgressed the law.”
Anton Harber, chairman of the Freedom of Expression |Institute, said the constitution and government policy clearly stated that SA’s democracy was built on openness and participation. Therefore, the “default” position should be that council deliberations were done in the open.
Only if there was very good reason to close proceedings, such as if it involved issues of security or invaded someone’s privacy, should it be done, Harber said.
“It would be seriously unconstitutional if this was done without reason.”
Section 5 of the Municipal Systems Act states that members of the local community “have the right to demand that proceedings of the municipal council and those of its committees must be open to the public, subject to section 20 (of the Act)”.
Section 20 of the same Act, however, states: “Meetings of a municipal council and those of its committees are open to the public, including the media, and the council or such committee may not exclude the public, including the media, from a meeting except where a) it is reasonable to do so having regard to the nature of the business being transacted.”
Derek Luyt, the media and advocacy head at the Public Service Accountability Monitor, said the interpretation of the word “reasonable” appeared to be what the municipality was using to justify its decisions.
“There needs to be a tightening up of the definition and what is and is not reasonable,” Luyt said.
“We cannot have it open to abuse. It is morally indefensible to use this clause to keep things (secret), and any sensible local government that takes its commitment to transparency seriously cannot be expected to interpret that section to mean anything else other than ‘only in exceptional circumstances and those of an extremely sensitive nature’.”
He added that the use of the clause should be the exception rather than the rule, and there should always be a “public interest override”.