I’m an Aquarius … “let the sun shine in” is my mantra.

So I am regularly disappointed, with all the sunshine in which Hawke’s Bay basks, how little of it penetrates our Councils’ walls.

To the contrary, “Council transparency” is an oxymoron.

Here’s an episode from the last HB Regional Council meeting that illustrates the point.

The Council agenda included a “public excluded” item dealing with the creation of a holding company to manage the Council’s (i.e., your) considerable financial and property assets.

Three Councillors – Remmerswaal, Gilbertson and von Dadelszen – objected to the discussion occurring in closed session. Having read the confidential briefing paper prepared for the discussion, they could see no reason for excluding the public. There were apparently no commercial negotiations at stake, no personal privacy at risk … nothing to justify secrecy.

In the debate that ensued over the motion to close the meeting, it became clear instead that proponents of public exclusion wanted to enjoy what several Councillors termed a “full, free and frank” discussion of the issues. This is not a reason sanctioned by law.

To the contrary, this is “Councillor-speak” for being free – behind closed doors – to base arguments and decisions on opinions or considerations that Councillors would be embarrassed to state in public. Embarrassed because the argument or reason might be unsubstantiated or unable to withstand informed scrutiny, might not really be a legitimate grounds in the first place, might reveal some prior Council mistake or malfeasance, might reveal other procedural mischief (as in evading public tendering rules), might be based upon someone’s transparently self-serving agenda, or just be plain foolish.

In this particular case, Chairman Dick, defending secrecy, said bluntly: “I won’t be able to say certain things I would otherwise say that are important.” In other words, the Chairman believed he had something to say that he clearly thought would be so crucial, so relevant, so terribly persuasive to – maybe even determinative of – the outcome … but this reason could not be expressed in public. So, a decision might be made on a basis never made public or subject to outside challenge.

This is an important point, because Chairman Dick and several other Councillors (notably Rose and Wilson) justified secrecy on the grounds that the Council could schedule subsequent public discussions on the matter, and this would satisfy the need for transparency. But in those subsequent public discussions, would the real issues or reasons ever surface? Why would Chairman Dick then blurt out his formerly secret “full and frank” sentiments? Or Rose or Wilson theirs?

In these situations, by the time any public discussion occurs (if it does), the game plan is already set, and the public will hear only the options and arguments deemed suitable for them … “Children, you may come back into the room.”

Other comments in the debate bear out this reality. Said one Councillor: “We need to get our ducks in a row” before a public discussion. Said another: “We must have a proposal before we go to the public.”

Councillor Rose suggested repeatedly that the matter be dealt with in a “workshop” – that’s more Councillor-speak. It means: “Let’s avoid the entire issue of whether we have a legitimate reason under law for considering a public excluded agenda item … let’s just call it a non-meeting.” Even Chairman Dick felt obliged to comment that Rose’s approach was even less transparent, calling workshops “secret squirrel sessions.”

Now I don’t mean to be picking on the Regional Council. The penchant for “workshops” and public excluded sessions is one I’ve witnessed dozens and dozens of times as a regular firsthand observer of Hastings and Napier Council business … and under Sir John Anderson the same style prevails at the District Health Board.

What is unusual about the HBRC episode is that the subject of secrecy was debated at all! This almost never happens. In fact, I’ve attended easily around 150 meetings of various Councils in the last three years. Virtually every one has included public excluded items on the agenda. But I can’t recall even a handful of occasions where a Councillor has challenged the need for secrecy.

This strong bias for secrecy seems to be imbedded in the very DNA of most of our Councillors. They just LOVE to do business behind closed doors. They prefer to avoid public scrutiny at every opportunity.

Unfortunately, secrecy is the arch enemy of public accountability. And a habit of secrecy lowers the bar in terms of the quality – and ultimately, public acceptability – of local body decision-making.

To my thinking, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Even better, it improves our mood and productivity. We need more Councillors, in each of our Councils, who will demand to let the sun shine in.

Tom Belford

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10 Comments

  1. It would be interesting to hear how the views of the other councilors (all of 'em) on the issue.

    Did it go to a vote?

  2. I am warming to Bay Buzz with its focuss on lack of transparency and predetermined locked doors decision making.

    With respect some years ago I challenged this in the media and on submissions and have been publicly abused for doing so.

    It became a subjet that recieved media attention in a full page HB Today article featuring the debating chamber of NCC and a never

    let a photo oppotunity pass by for Mayor Arnott.

    At the time NCC was at the pinacle of both the public excluded league and the formal complaints division.

    The debating chamber of NCC is the most claustrophobic room I have been in other than a mushroom growing shed and reminds me of the mafia dens of Elliot Ness T.V.

    It has no windows that let any ray of sunshine in Tom refers too let alone encourage free and open debate. Meetings start with the council prayer then all it aspires too in its lofty words are ignored.

    A look at the past 9 years members voting under Mayor Arnotts anti democratic dictatoral steward ship tells its own story.

    It was no better prior to that under Mayor Dick and even worse under the long tenure of office of Mayor Tait.

    Whats changed in past decade? Answer one members hat and one CEO. There is a systemic problem in HB local governance

    Keep the flow of truth going Bay Buzz.. Its 50 years overdue.

  3. Yes it did go to a vote, and Councillors Gilbertson, von Dadelzsen and myself voted against the matter being discussed in private. As a result of our concerns though, it was decided that the issue be discussed in public at two future committee and council meetings.

    Watch this space.

    PS One of my concerns is that a decision to form a holding company of up to 200 million dollars of public assets should be accompanied by robust wide ranging discussion with the owners- the public.The issue was mentioned in last years ten year plan (LTCCP) and attracted one submission, from the HB Chamber of Commerce.

    Is that adequate consultation?

  4. Keep getting stuck into these bastards Tom: you are certainly doing God's work. While one assumes various factions will have their "ducks in a row" ahead of time, having the entire Council (well, bar three members) operating as some sort of cabal is an affront to the democratic process.

    More power to your arm, Cr Remmerswaal.

  5. On April the 12th 2005 a double page feature on the issue of public excluded appeared in HB Today featuring all 4 HB Mayors and the then Chair of HBRC.

    One Tim Gilbertson of CHBC is a first term HBRC Member. The article identified the following figures for the previous year 2004-

    CHBC- 7of 34 Workshops Public excluded– 20:58%

    Agenda items-16 of 275 with16 excluded ——5:81%

    NCC-20 of 76 briefings excluded —-19:2%

    Agenda items- 69 of 411 excluded –11:9%

    HDC- 11 of 58 briefings excluded — 18:9%

    Agenda items-39 of 440 excluded — 8:2%

    WDC- All briefings excluded———– 100%

    Agenda items-35 of 221 excluded—–15:8%

    Mayor Probert indicated if anyone walked in on a

    briefing they would not Quote "Be thrown out"

    HBRC- I of 17 briefings excluded——- 5:8%

    Agenda items-16 of 275 excluded—— 5:8%

    The figures and percentages are taken from the HB Today

    two page pull out feature article 12th April 2005

    It would be intersting if Bay Buzz reviewed the 2004 data

    with a 2009 update comparison

  6. $200 million … what is the provision of 6 air quality monitors that will ensure that the aerosols of calcium polysulfide are not endemically harming health … compared with that? These could be placed around schools, have them monitoring the results, correlating them with respiratory/migraine/nausea and conjunctivitis absences from schools. This would show whether or not it is 'low socio economic status' from which such problems derive or that the 'new found greenery,' organic pip fruit orcharding, that is permitted to waft so freely and frequently off site … to strip the paint off cars, to concomitatantly cause soft tissue damage particularly to our children … all courtesy of our Regional Council, is responsible. Such purchase would also help ensure against such intransigence ever occurring again.

    Was not the Napier Harbour bequested on the premise of funding environmental pursuit …. could not the health and welfare of its citizenry be considered of paramount significance?

    How can our Regional Council so preciously put a halt on the functioning of our new, 'up to the moment,' sewage treatment system when it 'permits' the off site drift of similar (hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide – respiratory irritants) toxic aerosols on such a massive scale?

    Some things are simply beyond comprehension.

  7. Being a tad brash … we have Lawrence trying to get it in to Rodney's trunks, PM 10's and all, Wayne trying to get in to Lawrence's albeit without conflicting interest … and total visibility … & if that aint exhibitionism, then goodness knows? But interesting that Lawrence should go a tad, just a tad petulant, and exhibit his feminine side … just a bit risky perchance?

    Perhaps all will share trunks to do laps in their new, up to the moment sewage treatment plant and he who emerges breathing shall win.

    Unlike natural gas, which is lighter than air, has mercaptans added for recognition and safety, so that it can be smelled and dissipates quickly … hydrogen sulfide (sewer gas) is heavier than air, will sit for 3+ days in low lying areas, I am sure west Clive will recognise this, and our council wants to disguise its existence?? To deodourise it??

    Blessed rocks will not disperse this stuff … from whence does this crass nonsense emanate? Yule? Bradshaw? Dick?

  8. I wish to state my position on this issue. To vote to exclude the public is a matter I, as I'm sure with my colleagues, take very seriously. It is easy to assume something inevitably sinister in excluding the public, but this is a misrepresentation. Any councilor should ask him or her self the question, "Is the public's best interest served by its exclusion?" when voting on such an issue.

    There may be times when a councilor will vote to exclude the public as it may be seen to be to his/her political advantage – and likewise to vote against exclusion – but this would be rare. In the case considered here, what would a councillor possibly gain personally by excluding public debate. Simply there is nothing. I seriously considered how to vote, and reluctantly voted to exclude. But I was assured before doing so that it would be an open issue when it next came before the council. I believe the debate that eventuated was more productive than it would otherwise have been.

    For those who believe that it is inherently wrong to exclude the public, here is an example where it was obviously the right thing to do (although incredibly one councilor retrospectively thought it wrong). The council debated and consequently gave instructiuons to the CEO as to the strategy to buy land in CHB for land based waste water discharge. This included the price that he was authorised to negotiate up to. Really, to have held this in open meeting would have made us the nation's laughing stock. That price would have become the asking price of the vendor. In the event the purchase price was somewhat less.

    I agree that openness is the lifeblood of democracy. But there are times when it is inappropriate to the public interest.

    Incidently, local government is far more open than central government. There legislation is initially determined by party caucus, always in secret (and the Labour Party has an outragious rule that an MP who votes in the House against a caucus resolution is expelled). And you have to wait 30 years to find out what went on in the executive.

    Cr Ewan McGregor

  9. Cr McGregors statements on the Tuki amount to defense of undefendable decisions a decade ago that signed the death warant of a top class trout fishery and general recreational venue.

    There should have been no need for public excluded debate on allocation of Regional Council ratepayers money to purchase land providing a get out for CHBC who failed to budget to upgrade its substandard discharges of waste water effluent into the Tuki.

    What had been carried out prior to a decision to purchase?

    Where are the pre purchase technical and environment impact feasabilty reports? Do they exist Cr McGregor?

    If so can I be provided with a copy as an interested party having been involved in original submissions process and CHBC consent application hearings?

    HBRC accomodated that by granting an extension of 12 years to continue and continuing to grant surface and ground watert takes aggravating low river flow rates increasing incidents and severity of toxic algae bloom.

    Trout deaths from long term exposure to well established Endoctrine-Disrupting-Chemicals (EDCs) were inevitable.

    The first deaths were in 2007 and 08. It is no coincidence with evidence manifesting itself HBRC engaged in damage control in purchasing land to divert substandard disharges that should not have been continued with after the consent expired a decade ago.

    The councillor eluded to as being out of step in seeking public debate on land purchase was in my estimation in step as a member who had not been party to errors of granting consents that should have been denied not accomodated with a 400 meter mixing zone from the point of disharge to the river.

    That in itself is open to question at what point in the river flow was/are the test samples being taken? I questioned that during my oral submission and got no answer or on a 400 meter mixing zone rather than at point discharge as did other submitters.

    The extended low flow periods resulting from more water takes after the consent further compound the validity of the consent to
    discharge substandard contaminants in reducing dilution rates.

    Submitters opposing that who I was one representing a group licence holders wasted their time in contesting a pre determined decision in violation of the Auditor Controller Generals 1998 directive to Territoral Authorities on consultation.

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