The privacy of public money - how councils keep costly errors secret

The response of a local authority to FoI requests on a €1.5m underpass illustrates the difficulties in examining how public monies are spent, writes Investigative Correspondent Conor Ryan.

The privacy of public money - how councils keep costly errors secret

ASTONES throw from the platform at the new Carrigtwohill train station there is a €1.5m underpass built to allow cars pass under the tracks.

But, were it not for a small sign and a mound of earth, the people of Co Cork who helped pay for this bridge would not be able to find out a lot about it.

There are telltale hints. The remnants of a dirt track lead through the field up towards it. A kink in the security railings was set up to accommodate the widened entrance.

There is also a reference in a Local Government Audit Service report that highlights a breakdown in budgetary control during its construction.

Beyond that, there is not a lot known about bridge 5B or the problems which have been flagged about it by the audit committee within Cork County Council.

In February, a Freedom of Information request was made to the council for a copy of the internal audit documents relating to the underpass and the reports prepared for management.

These requests were the subject of a blanket refusal in late April on the grounds that their release could prejudice investigative processes, the workings of the council or potential legal proceedings.

Last week, a press query was submitted to the council to confirm the location of the bridge and to obtain a statement on why it was built.

The initial reaction was that a request had been made under the Freedom of Information Act, and this was refused, so further queries should be channelled through the €75 internal review process.

Subsequently a small amount of further information was released by the council. This included “confirmation” it had built bridge 5A near the station and this was the development referred to by auditors.

However, 5A is not the underpass built by Cork County Council. This bridge, 5A, is 200m away and was built by Irish Rail at the same time to connect the same two land banks.

The bridge 5A is open and is used by grazing horses. The bridge 5B is fenced off and filled with soil.

The council told the auditors there was logic behind the bridge’s installation and it was planning for the future expansion of Carrigtwohill. It wanted to avoid having to retrofit the line for a new bridge in years to come.

But it has been unwilling to release the documents to support this position or to explain the audit concerns.

The Freedom of Information response is not an isolated issue.

In the recently released annual report of the information commissioner, it was revealed that twice last year, it had to issue Section 37 notices against Cork County Council.

These are a rarely-used function of the commissioner’s office to demand an authority furnish documents for inspection.

“In the case of Cork County Council, two separate notices issued to the council for two sets of records associated with a single review. It took a total of six months for the records to arrive in my office, three months for each set,” the annual report said.

In 2013, the council received 93 Freedom of Information requests. It had 10 requests sent to the information commissioner for appeal, more than double any other council in the country.

Generally local authorities are a focus for a large number of FoI requests, 1,252 across Ireland in 2013.

More than a quarter came from members of the public. But the responses to requests are inconsistent.

In recent months, a number of applications were submitted to local authorities by the Irish Examiner on issues to do with lost money and compliance with spending rules.

Many of the documents concerned were refused. Others were released in full.

Cork City Council was asked for 42 reports referenced by the local government auditor which were highlighted in a management letter critical of the responses by the executive.

These reports covered areas such as fire service wages, higher education grants, compliance with procurement practices, the operation of the cash desk, the rental accommodation scheme, the running of the Cork City marathon, the writing off of development levies, and the management of car parks.

This is not an exhaustive list. However, the decision maker said the release of the audit reports would hinder the functions of internal investigations and would allow public access to commercially sensitive material.

This can be compared with a similar request that was submitted to South Tipperary County Council, which resulted in the release of a number of audit reports.

Some of these covered very similar issues, revealed some shortcomings, and contained a small number of redactions where figures were considered to be commercially sensitive.

Other councils have restricted other losses to protect commercial interests.

A loss-making tourism project involving Roscommon County Council and Coillte was deemed to need this protection.

Another feature of the responses is the interpretation by local authorities of controversial changes to the Freedom of Information Act which have been criticised by transparency groups.

When the request regarding the Carrigtwohill underpass was initially put to the council, it considered it a multi-faceted query.

This was because it was listed alongside three other problems highlighted in the same report of the local government auditor.

The council said that even though all four queries arose from a single audit report, presented to the council at the end of 2013, they covered four separate departments and should be liable for four separate charges when the new Freedom of Information bill is passed.

A similar view was taken of queries of the annual audit done on Limerick council.

This approach brought to life the worst fears of transparency campaigners who succeeded in delaying the attempt by Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin to restrict the ability of the public to submitted Freedom of Information requests that straddled different issues within public bodies.

His amendment was billed as bid to tackle “multi-faceted” requests and charge €15 for each separate theme in a query.

However, when Mr Howlin agreed to withdraw his amendment temporarily to allow him reconsider it, he denied public bodies would interpret his amendment in this way.

Independent TD Stephen Donnelly asked him specifically if requests linked to single source, even if they had to go to different areas in the building, would still be dealt with for a standard €15 application fee.

“If a single request, not a multifaceted one, is submitted and the receiving officer has to send it to multiple offices and functional areas to get a response to it, is it the minister’s clear intention that such a request will be treated as a single request with a single upfront fee of €15?”

Mr Howlin was categoric in his response. “Yes, that was always my intention. That is what I am advised is the import of what I have included in the bill. For the avoidance of doubt, I will make it crystal clear and put it beyond doubt.”

However the interpretation of councils in Cork and Limerick was different, and felt that a query on different aspects of the one audit report would incur individual €15 fees once Mr Howlin’s amendment is voted through.

This will add another layer of difficulty to accessing information on public spending from local authorities.

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