‘Undermining local democracy’: Fairness watchdog to investigate closed-door council workshops

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The Rotorua Lakes Council’s closed-door workshops will soon be in the spotlight, with the Chief Ombudsman announcing an investigation spanning eight councils.

It’s a move welcomed by some, including local politicians and a public law expert.

Council chief executive Geoff Williams said the council supports the investigation and will “fully participate”.

On Thursday afternoon, the Ombudsman’s Office announced it would investigate concerns that councils were “undermining local democracy” by using workshops to discuss issues and “make decisions behind closed doors”.

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Chief ombudsman Peter Boshier said there was nothing to prevent councils from holding workshops, but he was concerned about reports that some ‘may use them to evade their responsibilities under the Information Act and official local government meetings”.

“Meetings must be open to the public, unless there is a good reason under [the Act] to exclude them.

He said these meeting requirements could not be avoided “simply by calling what is really [a] If a “workshop” is held and councils repeatedly use closed workshops to discuss issues, the public may “become suspicious”.

It could give the impression that a problem has already been solved, he said.

He thought some councils “could apply the law incorrectly” by making resolutions to exclude the public.

THE RETAIL/RNZ

RNZ’s The Detail speaks with Chief Ombudsman Justice Peter Boshier.

“Local bodies are not allowed to exclude the public from meetings so that they can hold ‘free and frank’ discussions behind closed doors. Yet I fear that will happen.”

The investigation is said to focus on eight councils: Rotorua Lakes Council, Taranaki Regional Council, Taupō District Council, Palmerston North Town Council, Rangitikei District Council, Waimakariri District Council, Timaru District Council and Clutha District Council. »

Boshier said he chose the tips for “a variety of reasons,” and some “got it right.”

It would seek input from the public, elected members and staff, and this would include an online survey available until August 26.

The survey would cover the current legislature, which began on October 12, 2019.

Councils would have the opportunity to comment on the Chief Ombudsman’s interim opinion, with a final opinion – expected mid-2023 – including advice and feedback from councils.

New Zealand local government chairman Stuart Crosby said it was a “perfectly legitimate investigation”.

He thought the issue needed “some clarity” and he looked forward to recommendations, but said his only concern was the timing before an election.

It risked being “militarized” by the candidates against the incumbents.

Public law expert and lawyer Graeme Edgeler said he did not believe there was a lack of clarity in the law, only a desire for some advice to get around it.

“The law is already clear. If you hold a meeting, hold it in public unless there is good reason [not to] under the law.

He said councils could simply change the names of workshops to meetings and “all problems with the law would go away”.

“The only difficulty is that they want to do something that they are not allowed to do. It’s not a matter of confusion.

He said the Ombudsman’s inquiry could “only be a good thing”.

25102019 Photo News MONIQUE FORD / STUFF Wellington lawyer Graeme Edgeler.

MONIQUE FORD/Stuff

25102019 Photo News MONIQUE FORD / STUFF Wellington lawyer Graeme Edgeler.

In March 2021, Rotorua businessman Justin Adams complained to the ombudsman about the District Council’s refusal to provide detailed information about the contents of his closed workshops.

Following Thursday’s announcement, Adams said he was “relieved” that the ombudsman agreed with the concerns he raised.

“I see this as a vindication of my concerns.”

He felt it was time for councils to act more transparently.

A Local Democracy Reporting survey in 2021 found that between 2018 and 2020, 31 councils held 937 workshops.

Of these, 737 were not open to the public.

The Rotorua Lakes Council held all of its 37 workshops during the period behind closed doors.

Horowhenua District Councilor and mayoral candidate Sam Jennings, who has previously criticized the use of workshops, said he firmly believed too much was happening “behind closed doors”.

He said openness would foster “trust and confidence” in local government. He said it was important for people to see how decisions were made.

Kāpiti Coast District Councilor Gwynn Compton, who has also been candid about the use of workshops, said the inquiry was “well overdue”.

He hopes that the Ombudsman will be able to broaden the scope of the inquiry.

“Councils often seem too willing to try to hold difficult conversations behind closed doors, which robs communities of the opportunity to see their democracy in action.”

Wellington City Councilor Fleur Fitzsimons welcomed the investigation, saying “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.

“Local government is going through a crisis of legitimacy and must do everything in its power to restore public trust.”

Christchurch City Council’s Cashmere Ward Community Board member Keir Leslie said the opening of workshops would show the “messiness” of democracy and how decisions were made, helping to ” bring communities on the journey” and empower them.

Rotorua Council of Lakes chief executive Geoff Williams said the council was “committed to transparent communication” of its decision-making process to the community.

“We support the Ombudsman’s inquiry and will participate fully in it.”

Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick was approached for comment.

Chadwick has previously said that the workshops contribute to a deeper understanding of the issues and what emerged from the workshops became public in formal meetings.

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