In the last fifteen months, since January 2010, the Hastings, Napier and Regional Councils have held 64 days of ‘workshops’ — public-excluded sessions where our Councillors apparently let their hair down and are ‘educated’ by staff.
By far, the workshop champion is the Hastings Council, which held 47 days of workshops, on some 58 topics. Workshops seem embedded in the HDC’s DNA. Apparently Hastings Councillors, with all their need for remedial education, are seriously impaired in their understanding of the local issues which they are supposed to be addressing on the public’s behalf.
Napier City Council, with 12 workshops, and the Regional Council, with 5 workshops, followed far behind.
BayBuzz received this information in response to an Official Information Act request to the three Councils.
No records are kept on any of this valuable dialogue. Surely this doesn’t reflect the quality of discussions! In truth, workshops are all about progressing public business via private winks and nods.
Usually the public rationale given for these private sessions is that, since they are not ‘official’ meetings, the normal standing orders that inhibit ‘full and frank’ debate don’t apply. Presumably this means heaps of information are shared by staff and absorbed by Councillors, who then have the opportunity to express their views, bewilderment, consternation — whatever — outside of public view. And this is deemed to advance the public good.
Here’s the way HDC describes what goes on: “The essence of a workshop is that it is a forum for discussions. Our workshops are not a forum for decisions but rather an avenue for councillors to discuss and learn about broader policy issues in a way that is impractical within the constraints of a formal meeting due to the prescriptive and proscriptive constraints of standing orders.” Got that?
Of course, the Councils can at any time merely vote to suspend their standing orders, removing their self-imposed chains, and ‘educating’ themselves in full public view*. And here’s a crazy thought … educate the public at the same time!
But that would defeat the real purpose of workshops, which is simply to conduct the public’s business — often more contentious aspects of our business — behind closed doors, with no official records kept. Why are they not ‘official meetings’, which would require open doors and record-keeping? Because Councillors claim they make no decisions at these sessions. That is, they take no votes … they simply reach understandings.
What public matters do they dispose of in these workshops? Here are just a few examples …
- Tangata Whenua Wastewater Joint Committee — here’s where Maori are persuaded by staff that the Clive plant is transforming kuparu (poop) into ‘biomass’ … or at least ‘enough’ of it.
- HPUDS (Joint workshop with HBRC and NCC) — interesting, neither HBRC nor NCC reported this 22 February 2010 session, nor one on July 29.
- Earthquake-prone buildings — Councillors know the status; you don’t.
- Waimarama encroachment — all the way back on May 11th 2010 … and you thought this was decided in 2011!
- Aquatic strategy — sessions in July, August and November … hey, but I’m sure Councillors minds are still open now that it’s time for public consultation.
- Social Wellbeing Strategy — Oh! Do we have one?
- Civic Square redevelopment — three sessions on this.
- Alcohol Action Group and strategy — three sessions on this. Does Council want a bigger role or not?
- Havelock North Plan Change — I’m sure residents are all well-informed on this item.
- Westshore erosion — no problems there, ‘eh?!
- CBD/Ahuriri transport link — nobody interested in that, right?
- Marineland — clearly Councillors feel they’ve heard enough from the public on this one.
- Alcohol strategy — two sessions on this … ditto the comment above regarding HDC workshops.
- Benthic Survey update — is Napier sewage outfall damaging the Bay’s ecosystem? Presumably Councillors now know.
- Community Engagement Plan — isn’t that supremely ironic? A private workshop on involving the public!
- Council’s three year priorities and 10 Year Plan — couldn’t possibly interest the ratepayers.
- Regional Council relevance in Hawke’s Bay — if there’s ANY discussion the public of HB needs to hear, this might be it! Interesting that outside guests were invited for this one — Sam Robinson and Paul Reynolds got to have their say in this private audience, did you?
- Velodrome bid — here’s where the HBRC committed to guarantee an additional $2.5 million loan to HDC if it was needed for the velodrome. Notice I said ‘committed’, not ‘voted’ … that would have made it a ‘meeting’!
So this provides just a glimpse of how our Councils prefer to do their our business … as far from public view as possible.
Recently BayBuzz has proposed that workshops be held in public, so that the ratepayers too can be educated on the issues Councillors are grappling with. At the suggestion of Councillor Alan Dick, the Regional Council is contemplating converting a planned May workshop on its ‘Strategic Plan’ into a public session. The Hastings Council is planning a workshop on its debt and finances — another case where ratepayers would benefit from better understanding of the situation — with consideration being given to opening it to the public.
Will such radical steps be taken? Don’t mark your calendars yet. BayBuzz will let you know.
*Of course Standing Orders are valuable to some … how could the rowdy Regional Council possibly police its intense debates without Councillors von Dadelszen and Scott ever at the ready with their Points of Order? HBRC’s workshops must be chaotic without Points of Order to keep the likes of Gilbertson and Remmerswaal under control! No wonder HBRC only had five workshops.