Reading the agenda materials for last Wednesday’s meeting of the HB Regional Council, you would have discovered — and I suspect, been surprised — that HBRC had agreed to pay the interest on a $2.5 million loan to be taken out by the Hastings District Council, should such a loan be required, as a last resort, to complete the then-anticipated velodrome in the face of a funding shortfall.
One can only assume that HDC, trying to cobble together a winning financial plan to support its velodrome bid, was desperate to show it could fund the project, and equally desperate to show that the project had ‘regional’ support. Either that, or they were simply afraid to ask Hastings ratepayers directly for yet another $2.5 million.
And one can only imagine what the discussion at the Regional Council must have been like when the HDC came knocking on their door to top up the $2.5 million grant the HBRC had already committed.
I emphasize ‘imagine’ because HBRC made its commitment in a so-called ‘workshop’ … completely outside of public view. The only reason the commitment came to light is because the HBRC would have needed to show the potential interest payments in its upcoming budget for 2011-12.
At the point its budget would have needed to be finally adopted in June, the HBRC probably expected it might be off the hook (because Hastings might by then be denied the velodrome … which indeed happened sooner than many expected); but meantime, it would have gone through the charade of ‘publicly consulting’ on the matter. How meaningless would that consultation have been if Hastings did get the velodrome. Then the pressure would be intense to ‘get with the program’ … any opposition would be ignored, if not considered downright treason … and HBRC would have confirmed the deal without a second thought.
What an insulting way to manipulate ratepayer funds and the budget process.
But this is only the latest example of how ‘workshops’ are used by all of our Councils to evade public scrutiny and accountability.
Technically, Council ‘workshops’ are not subject to the normal public meeting requirements (for notice and openness) because supposedly no official decisions are made. Thus, they provide a convenient way for Councils to deal with matters that might be politically controversial or embarrassing.
Additionally, Council staffs use workshops as an opportunity to privately steer Councillors toward their bureaucratic preferences. If you watch a Council meeting, chances are that if the issue gets contentious amongst Councillors, or if the staff senses Councillors might have a mind of their own … lo and behold … someone suggests: “Why don’t we workshop this?”
Normally the public would be entirely unaware of these workshops, because by definition they are not publicly advertised. Generally, a mere citizen would only find out about workshops by being physically present at an open Council meeting where somebody happens to refer to one. As in … “But didn’t we decide to do X at our workshop?” Or, as above … “Let’s workshop this.”
Notice the word “decide”?! It’s a total farce to pretend that key decisions are not in fact made in workshops … and merely ratified in public meetings.
That’s the path the HBRC’s ‘deal’ on the additional velodrome loan was on. Here’s the briefing paper language: “At the workshop on 9 February 2011 Council agreed to support (italics added) through an underwriting of interest on a $2.5 million loan to further assist” blah, blah, blah.
But why stop there … the entire HBRC budget for 2011-12 was hammered out in workshop. And then merely ratified in public session after maybe a half hour of desultory ‘debate’ and ‘we’re lean and mean’ posturing. And this from a phalanx of Councillors who ran on “Yes, we’ll be more transparent” promises in the recent election.
‘Transparency’ is a joke (on you) folks … but you’ve got to be there to fully appreciate it.
Yesterday, BayBuzz made an Official Information Act request to the Hastings, Napier and Regional Councils. We asked for fifteen months of records on workshops, their subject matters, an indication of what records of discussion were kept, and what ‘outsiders’ were invited to participate.
We look forward to reporting to you on the full scope of these workshops. Maybe Councils will ‘workshop’ whether they wish to ‘agree’ to the request!