The Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier is calling for councils to open workshops by default to reduce the perception that decisions are being made behind closed doors.
The call follows Mr Boshier’s decision last year to test concerns that councils were using workshops and other informal meetings to make decisions. He also looked at the way councils were excluding the public from council meetings.
“I am today releasing the findings of my investigation where I have set out my expectations that aim to increase transparency and accountability in the way councils use meetings and workshops,” Mr Boshier says.
“I’ve made it very clear that final decisions and resolutions cannot lawfully be made outside the context of a properly constituted council meeting. If councils were making decisions of this nature in workshops, they would be avoiding their responsibilities under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.
“Where meetings are concerned, councils must give advance notice and provide an agenda and supporting papers at least two days before the meeting. Meetings should be open to the public, unless there is good reason to exclude them. These meeting requirements can’t be avoided simply by calling what is really a meeting a workshop.”
Mr Boshier looked at the actions and decisions of eight councils. He found no evidence that actual decisions were made in workshops, but found some workshop practices that were counter to the principles of openness and could contribute to a perception that workshops are not being used in the right way.
”I also discovered that a range of council officials and elected members didn’t want to open workshops for a number of reasons including that asking questions could make them look stupid. I don’t consider that to be a valid reason to close a workshop. Elected members should be resilient enough to withstand reasonable public scrutiny. It is the job they are elected to do.
“Some councils were previously closing workshops by default. In my view, that is unreasonable. The Local Government Act states that local authorities should conduct business in an open, transparent and democratically accountable manner. As a matter of good practice, workshops should be closed only where it is reasonable.”
Mr Boshier also found a range of councils are using different terminology like “hui” or “forum” to describe workshops or informal briefing sessions. However, irrespective of the title, the same requirements around transparency and accountability, and the requirement to keep full and accurate records apply.
“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.
“Councils play a critical role in protecting the LGOIMA. This precious piece of legislation was deliberately enacted to end the days of the Official Secrets Act which was based on the premise that all official information should be withheld from the public unless good reasons existed to release it. The LGOIMA (and the OIA) is based on the premise that official information should be available to the public unless there is good reason to withhold it.
“Overall, I am pleased to see a willingness from all eight councils to change practices so that meetings and workshops are more transparent. Transparent decision-making in local government increases public confidence in councils and their processes. This is an underlying principle of our democracy.”
Source: Ombudsman New Zealand