Public Excluded

Just three meetings into the new year, it’s clear that promoting transparency at the HB Regional Council will be a struggle.

For example, at our first meeting on 29 January, we deliberated two agenda items in ‘Public Excluded’ session.

The outcome of the first item has now been announced to the public. In that matter, we commissioned two independent reports that will be critical to evaluating the financial and economic viability of the proposed dam. I discuss these in my Political Round-up article herein. There is absolutely no reason why the terms of reference for these studies could not have been released to the public. And public observation of councillors’ interrogation of the candidate firms would have been reassuring to skeptics of the proposed scheme. Financial terms and councillors’ deliberations over the candidates could readily have been kept private.

I have since published the terms of reference on the BayBuzz website. And I have been assured by HBRC chairman Fenton Wilson that both the ‘business case’ to be presented by HBRIC and the independent review of that case will be made public.

The second item considered in ‘Public Excluded’ was publicly titled: “HBRIC Ltd Staff Remuneration Request”.

As I write, I can say nothing about the content of that item. Yet I have been approached by two reporters and a half-dozen individuals in the community who already know precisely what happened! Councillors Barker, Beaven, Graham and myself challenged the Council’s handling of the matter with an OIA rerquest and an appeal to the Ombudsman. The ‘powers that be’ then relented and I am hopeful that all will be revealed by the time you are reading this.

The penchant for secrecy didn’t end with the ‘Public Excluded’ discussion on the 29th.

Once the ‘Public Excluded’ portion of the meeting was declared ended, thereby ending the official Council meeting (of course with media and the public long since gone), Chairman Fenton Wilson offered councillors the ‘opportunity’ to receive an update briefing on the dam from HBRIC chairman Andy Pearce, who had been on hand for the second ‘Public Excluded’ agenda item, and was still present.

Pearce began a presentation, but it was quickly noted that the ground rules were murky as to whether this briefing was considered public or confidential. Indeed, what was the official status of the ‘meeting’ at that point?

After a bit of posturing by various councillors, it became clear that I was the party regarded with suspicion by the devotees of secrecy. The question on the table: If other councillors wished to proceed with an ‘informal’ confidential briefing, would I pledge to report nothing of it?

I declined to participate in a rump private meeting, giving my view that it’s overdue for the public to have a wide-open look at the total scheme, with all its aspects and assumptions finally on the table.

So I left the ‘meeting’ — or whatever it was — and the briefing commenced.

I’ve since discussed this episode with Chairman Wilson, suggesting the need for an official policy of what confidentiality should apply to unofficial discussions, like the Council’s ‘workshops’. Some councillors seem to believe that ‘Chatham House Rules’ apply.

Under Chatham Rules, any participant could disclose that our recent workshop on the next Annual Plan discussed funding proposals concerning the Napier-Gisborne rail line, HB Tourism and Business Hawke’s Bay, and even describe those proposals and the general leanings of the discussion (of course we didn’t adopt any ‘decisions’ … that would be illegal). However, comments of participants could not be disclosed in any manner that might identify the speaker.

While I am not keen on holding ‘workshops’ behind closed doors at all, Chatham Rules would be a step in the right direction. At least the public would know the content and tenor of these important meetings.

Many more transparency battles are to come, I’m sure. It’s trench warfare.

For me, the principle of transparency is paramount. I made that very clear during my election campaign and voters responded positively.

I will press our Regional Council towards transparency — the basis of public accountability and smarter decisions — at every opportunity. I will push the boundaries … vigorously. Anything less and I would be failing to keep faith with my constituency.

Tom Belford

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