With the election season upon us, undoubtedly the clever candidates, especially amongst the incumbents, will again pledge themselves to ensuring council ‘transparency’ if they are elected.

It’s an easy promise … a throwaway line. But what does ‘transparency’ really mean? How might you tell if a candidate is sincere in his or her promise? What concrete measures might give his or her campaign promise some grunt? I’ll suggest some possibilities.

But first, why does transparency matter?

Better outcomes

Weird things happen in secrecy. The more public business is conducted in the open and the more elected officials know they are being watched, the better the outcome. Or, at least, the more likely that outcomes will be arrived at for justifiable reasons and based on reliable evidence.

The entire ‘game’ is lifted. Councillors can’t afford to look foolish or churlish or unprepared. But those who are foolish, churlish or unprepared can be readily spotted … and ideally replaced.

Greater public trust

Frequently our elected officials need to make tough calls and balance competing values. Not everyone will be happy with every outcome. But, everyone should be satisfied with the process.

Was the investigation thorough? The data and reasoning sound? Were various points of view heard on a level playing field? When the process is transparent, voters or ratepayers can be educated and led in directions they might not at first have considered or endorsed.

The Regional Council’s railroading of its dam scheme is the perfect antithesis of transparency. The HBRC’s process has sown nothing but distrust.

So, what kind of practices do constitute genuine transparency … the kind that can improve outcomes and trust? What should candidates commit to?

First, will they come out of the closet with respect to their decision-making processes?

For example, would the candidate ban the use of public-excluded ‘workshops’? Workshops are meetings behind closed doors for councillors to deal with politically risky issues. Instead, workshops – open to the public – could be used to help educate the public on vexing issues … especially if made available for online viewing.

Will the council publish periodic reports on their use of public-excluded sessions and on denials of all Official Information Act requests? These reports would help document the ‘openness quotient’ of our councils.

Second, will they use technology to make their decision-making and themselves more available to the public?

For example … full, unedited webcasting of council proceedings. Let many more people witness the decision-making process firsthand, at their own leisure. Many of us thought we had secured this online window into the Regional Council. However, HBRC has backed off full webcasting and archiving to save $10,000 … “the cost of our hot lunches”, noted one councillor.

Will the councillor maintain a website or Facebook presence to report on his or her official activities, explain issues and decisions, and seek public feedback on matters before the council?

Third, will they actively seek public engagement?

Will they hold at least some council meetings in the evening, to convenience the working public?

Will they sponsor public forums or town meetings on key decisions Hawke’s Bay is facing – such as HDC’s forums on GMOs, fluoride and, coming in October, oil development? Not propaganda sessions to sell a council party line, but serious examination of pros and cons. Ask candidates to identify an issue that might merit a council-sponsored public forum.

Will they allow meaningful citizen deputations on major issues – not the current 5-10 minute drop-by’s, but serious presentations by informed community groups?

Fourth, will they support council amalgamation as a way to simplify public engagement with decision-making?

Those who seek to understand – let alone influence – council decision-making are overwhelmed by the redundancy, inconsistency, and buck-passing of multiple councils. Wheeling and dealing amongst our five councils further obscures what is going on and prevents accountability, while frustrating effective involvement by community leaders from all sectors as well as the broader public. The ‘transaction costs’ are huge. Amalgamation is a friend of greater transparency.

Support for measures like these separates those council candidates who are just mouthing the word from those truly committed to transparency. A good starting point for deciding which candidates you can really trust … and a great indicator of which candidates are likely to listen.

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