Between now and the end of the year, the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council will conduct three ‘workshops’ on its next long-term plan (LTP). That’s on top of three already conducted. Our territorial authorities are doing the same.
None of these were or will be open to the public.
Yet behind the closed doors of these workshops (and others like them on other ‘vexing’ topics), the most important judgments about HBRC and other councils’ spending and programme priorities over the next three years – matters of utmost importance to most ratepayers – will be made.
Notice I used the word ‘judgments’, not ‘decisions’. Meetings of councils where ‘decisions’ are made must be open to the public, unless specific items meeting criteria in the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) are voted to be discussed in closed session, with legal justifications given.
So councillors, abetted by council staff, have become adroit at insisting they really aren’t deciding how much to raise your rates or which projects to fund during a workshop, they are just discussing these matters and perhaps arriving at unofficial consensus. I have railed against this practice for years, including during my two terms as a Regional Councillor.
How soon all our councillors forget about their campaign profiles in which they emphatically pledge to guarantee the utmost transparency. Once in office, however, their attitudes change. They become more ‘realistic’ about discussing difficult, politically controversial issues that are apparently beyond mere citizens’ intellectual or emotional capacity … and close the doors.
But great news.
After a year of investigation, Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has just proclaimed that this practice is a bunch of bull****. Well, not his exact words.
But he is calling for councils to open their workshops by default to reduce the perception that decisions are being made behind closed doors. Referring to the open meetings requirements of LGOIMA, he said: “I’ve made it very clear that final decisions and resolutions cannot lawfully be made outside the context of a properly constituted council meeting … These meeting requirements can’t be avoided simply by calling what is really a meeting a workshop.”
He notes: “Another reason put forward by councils for closing workshops was to provide elected members a ‘safe space’ to ask ‘silly questions’ out of the public eye. I do not accept this argument. Councillors are elected to public office, a position that demands accountability. They should be prepared for a level of scrutiny and even reasonable criticism from those they represent.”
He adds: “I expect councils to make it clear to the public that they can complain to me about workshops.”
Apart from default open workshops, the Ombudsman makes this further critical instruction: “Review practice and internal guidance for keeping records of workshop proceedings, ensuring they contribute to a clear audit trail of the workshop, including details of information presented, relevant debate, and consideration of options.” As I read that, it means create a discoverable paper trail.
I and other Regional Councillors championed this practice during our regime. Whether it has survived, I don’t know.
Here is the Ombudsman’s full report: Open for business: A report on the Chief Ombudsman’s investigation into local council meetings and workshops. It contains a very thorough list of specific practices the Ombudsman expects councils to embrace. I suggest all the region’s councillors read this report and discuss their commitment to its recommendations at their next scheduled all-councillor ‘love feast’, scheduled for 13 November.
Meantime, I’m asking HB’s four mayors and Regional Council chair whether they plan to change practices in the face of this admonition. We will report their responses in due course.
But workshops were not Boshier’s only target lately. He’s concerned about evaporating public trust in general.
Commenting in his recent Annual Report, he noted: “Over the past year, I received the second highest number of complaints ever, exceeding the number received in the years following the Canterbury earthquakes and the early pandemic period.
“Overall, the number of complaints I received in 2022/23 were 46 percent higher than the average number I received in the four years prior to the pandemic. I received 2,059 official information complaints and 4,028 Ombudsman Act complaints as well as more than 5,000 enquiries.”
Not all of these complaints involve local government. But trust in local government? Are you kidding?!
At BayBuzz we receive a constant stream of complaints that councils are secretive, that information is selectively released to those who stand to benefit commercially, that council staffs are unresponsive to the public in ways blindly defended by oblivious councillors, that councils deliberately adopt stonewalling tactics, deliberately aiming to outlast complaining ratepayers or drive them to costly litigation.
Some we do investigate.
A case in point lately involves an ongoing ratepayer legal battle with the HDC where a council document surfaced that referred to council’s habit of evasive practices in dealing with complaints. As reported by Marty Sharpe in Stuff: “The existence of a secret document referring to a “normal practice” of dealing with complaints by “shutting up shop”, “ignoring” and “await litigation” has been uncovered by a couple in a long-running dispute with Hastings District Council.” This is a document written by a senior manager, whose characterisation is yet to be repudiated by an appropriate HDC spokesperson, like the Mayor.
Not every complaint is fairly made nor mishandled. But some of our councils clearly have ‘culture’ issues, as the Ombudsman’s report recognises, and mayors, councillors and senior staff simply ‘circling the wagons’ is definitely not the answer.
Boshier made an observation about local government so self-evident that it’s shocking it needs to be said by the nation’s top ‘good government’ official:
“Trust is at the core of the relationship between people and their locally elected representatives. One way local government can earn trust is through transparent decision making that is open to public involvement and scrutiny. Transparency supports accountability, encourages high performance and increases public confidence.”
In the year ahead, our councils will be making extremely difficult decisions about pathways to Hawke’s Bay recovery and resilience. The more trust our councils have in their ‘accounts’, the more able they will be to provide leadership and bring people along on the journey. Squander the trust, and we have an extremely contentious, perhaps impassable, road ahead.