Last week we noted that the Ombudsman, after a special investigation, had criticised NZ local councils for lack of transparency, specifically challenging their use of behind-closed-doors ‘workshops’ to conduct their most serious business.
He called upon councils to open their workshops “by default”, accepting that there would still be occasions where personal privacy, legal matters or commercial discussions might require closed sessions.
BayBuzz thereupon asked each HB major and their chief executives (same for HBRC chair and CEO) whether they planned to adopt the Ombudsman’s recommendation on workshops.
Our leaders decided to respond en masse as follows:
“We welcome the strong recommendations from the Ombudsman as transparent decision making in local government is very important to us and is integral to having a high-trust environment with our communities.
“Our councils across Hawke’s Bay have a strong, transparent culture but we are always looking to improve. We will work through all of the Ombudsman’s recommendations to find those that can best improve our processes. It is very helpful for the Ombudsman to outline specific expectations and guidelines for best practice. We support the “open by default” language and think that we could all definitely do more to pick up some of the best practice guidance given by the Ombudsman. [Editor highlighting]
“There will always be important times where people, employment relationships and commercial arrangements need to be protected from public scrutiny and we need to make sure that these are well recorded, understood and described. It is also important that this expectation of transparency is across all levels of the government, starting from the top.“
Of course “support the ‘open by default’ language” and actually opening the workshops are two different things. Each council will continue to make its own decision on opening and reporting on workshops, and so eternal vigilance will be required.
To get into the right spirit, our councils might begin by actually listing their planned workshops along with all ‘official’ meetings on their website calendars. Currently, only HBRC does this and they will be holding several workshops over the reminder of the year. It’s hard to imagine the other councils aren’t doing likewise — workshops have long been the preferred venues for developing Long-Term Plans (LTPs) and all councils would be well into that process by now. But none are on their public calendars at the moment.
No point in ‘opening’ a workshop nobody knows about!
CHBDC does get a brownie point for issuing public reports on the business transacted during the ‘public excluded’ portions of their official meetings. The Ombudsman would be proud.
Perhaps we might see a competition of sorts as to which HB council will be most transparent! Or will they travel as a closely aligned pack as their joint media release implies?
Councillors should not fear a thundering herd of ratepayers at workshops clamouring for a free coffee and biscuit at the tea break. Assuming workshops are streamed online and recorded, a stampede can be averted. And at least media reporters will be happy to observe.