Current Issue #488

Montefiore: Plugging Town Hall's leaky corridors

Montefiore: Plugging Town Hall's leaky corridors

Despite a $20,000 invoice and no discovery of fingerprints, Town Hall continues to grapple with the potential for leaks, revealing deep secrets. But a recent request to a government minister will only encourage leaks – this time about intimate details of the city’s households and businesses.

Sir Monty’s abilities with the spanner, the wrench and the Stilson grip have been diminished with time but his skills at changing tap washers are still good. There are no leaks at his North Terrace club, despite the fact that some brass plumbing dates to the day the doors opened in 1864.

The fixing of leaks in the City of Adelaide, however, appears to be not so contained.

While metro plumbers still charge a motza to pull up in the white van, it’s nothing compared to the $20,000 that Town Hall spent to plug a leak in February. It took four months to table results. Quite why it commissioned lawyers to do the work remains a mystery, because unlike the plumber, whom one can call back if the leak keeps dripping, nothing could be done when the lawyers walked away without identifying the source of the leak. They packed up their interviews, audit logs, email analyses, pinned a $20k invoice to the CEO’s message board, and departed. The administrators appeared to be disappointed.

It didn’t compare to the level of disappointment in another office, many thousands of kilometres east across the Pacific, in the United States’ federal office of personnel management, when it discovered in 2014 that spies had infiltrated a database containing the names of five million Americans who had ‘secret’ or ‘top secret’ clearances. Some had been posted overseas as undercover spies, masquerading as diplomats. Now that’s not just a leak, that’s a deluge. The cost to Uncle Sam in trying to close the stable door once the horse had bolted with the personal details of its national security elite would be inestimable.

It puts into perspective types of leaks, and those lesser ones that might drip in Australia’s most self-effacing capital, Adelaide, the Athens of the South.

Town Hall’s February dribble was one so unique that it had a special descriptor – a breach of confidentiality, no less. It led to embarrassing headlines alleging misspent money, based on undeniable facts in a council document. It triggered the unleashing of the bloodhounds, as the embarrassed administrators called in the sleuths. Days after the disappointing results came in, a red-light blinked in Sir Monty’s parlour. Another day, another brief.

Sir Monty’s investigation of the investigation turned up some intriguing findings.

“We have not sought to undertake sufficient relevant investigative activities to determine the existing of otherwise of evidence in relation to the matter,” the leak investigators had reported.

They also noted that they hadn’t interviewed “all relevant witnesses,” nor had they “obtained all potentially available evidence”. This was correct: only five of the 12 elected members had been interviewed, and only 15 of potentially hundreds of Pirie Street staff.

To add insult to injury, investigators also confessed:

“We have not taken formal statements from any witness, nor have we pursued all potential avenues of enquiry. No warranty of completeness, accuracy or reliability is given in relation to the statements and representations made by, and the information and documentation provided by, City of Adelaide management, personnel and elected members consulted as part of this process.”

Can you recall a time when your plumber said that? We didn’t check all the pipes. We give no warranty about taps, tap washers, o-rings or future drips? It’s a curious business in local government when no result is accompanied by a $20k chit. It’s hard not to conclude that someone, somewhere, was quietly pleased.

There’s now another matter fermenting that also has high potential for leaks, but, far from taking evasive action, Town Hall is encouraging it.

In June, a keen re-election candidate called for all city candidates to be able to obtain the voters’ roll in electronic form. This is rather like a secret White Pages directory containing the fully up-to-date names and addresses of every city resident on the roll. Whole voting-age households of families are identified, name by name. Businesses: the rate-paying managers and their office addresses.

You won’t find this intimate population profile anywhere else. It’s highly personal stuff, and until now it was only available on paper: large folders listing information that political parties can only dream of when updating their constantly ageing databases. But the paper was a significant barrier to dispersion and rapid consumption by a hungry database somewhere.

Historically, candidates were also sworn to keep the papers’ contents confidential, and to only access them for bona fide pre-election campaigning. But in electronic form? The data abuse potential exponentially expands. Town Hall needs to get parliament to change the City of Adelaide Act 1998 to do so, so has written to the minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Local Government to get the ball rolling.

If it comes to pass, that e-doc will become highly sought after, a ‘collector’s edition’ for whom such data is gold. The bid by the candidate also featured an additional request: “To introduce provisions in relation to the voter’s roll, to ensure permanent occupiers within co-working spaces have an individual enrolment entitlement, in addition to those entitlements provided to other occupiers by virtue of the Assessment Record.” If the minister agrees, and parliament approves, that addition to the roll will deliver even richer data.

Sir Monty suspects that not one of Adelaide’s finest plumbers would be capable of discovering the source of such a leak, especially if it dripped from a USB stick inadvertently left on a café table somewhere.

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