Potential for damage from information leaks

There is an inherent responsibility on councillors to protect the confidentiality of information provided to them as part of their role.

A recent prosecution against a former councillor has renewed focus on preventing confidential and in-confidence information from being released to the public and revealed the reputational damage that can be done by breaking the rules.

Former South Gippsland Shire councillor Andrew McEwen has been placed on a 12-month good behaviour bond after pleading to one charge of misuse of position on 20 September. Mr McEwen was ordered to pay a $1500 donation to the local hospital and $15,000 towards prosecution legal fees.

Mr McEwen appeared in Wonthaggi Magistrates’ Court charged with the offence of making improper use of information acquired as a result of holding the position of councillor to gain or attempt to gain, directly or indirectly, an advantage for another person.

The Inspectorate case stated that Mr McEwen provided a Tarwin Lower resident with information, “to assist, or in an attempt to assist” the resident in his proceeding against the South Gippsland Shire Council in the Supreme Court. This effectively provided information to assist in a case against the council where Mr McEwen was a councillor.

Mr McEwen publicly denied the offence at the time and the court heard that he attempted to conceal evidence proving he transmitted the information. The charge laid against Mr McEwen and speculation on the information provided to residents was reported widely in media and the conduct by Mr McEwen may have formed part of the broader picture leading to the shire being dismissed.

The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into South Gippsland Shire detailed some of the Chief Municipal Inspector’s concerns about the release of confidential information to the media and community and the reputational damage done to the council as a result.

Chief Municipal Inspector David Wolf said: “We take the allegation of releasing confidential or in-confidence information seriously as it undermines the individual and broader reputation of local councils. In this case the act of misusing information had significant consequences for the person responsible and these behaviours ultimately contributed to the dismissal of the elected council.”