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.