Secrecy rules used to suit council needs
Porirua City Council has generally been behaving itself when excluding the public from its meetings.
Compared to some other councils around the Wellington region, the Porirua council has followed the rules well on the 10 occasions in its 14 meetings that it has excluded the public.
Councils are obliged to conduct some business in private and the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 stipulates when that should happen and what practices should be followed when they do.
The first principle of the act is that information must be available unless there is good reason for withholding it.
When councils do exclude the public, they are obliged to cite the reason for doing so, the section of the act they are relying on and ‘‘state the general subject of each matter to be considered’’.
Porirua gave the subjects for discussion on all but one occasion.
On February 26 one of the subjects given was minutes, with no more detail.
Council spokeswoman Moana Wyatt said the council’s practices met the Local Government Act guidelines except one instance under a temporary manager. ‘‘We now do disclose,’’ she said. The council in the Wellington area most likely to shut itself behind closed doors last year was Upper Hutt (seven times in seven meetings) and South Wairarapa (five times in 14 meetings) was the least.
Upper Hutt City Council also offered the most minimal statement about what it was kicking people out to discuss.
Subjects last year included ‘‘Approval of minutes’’, ‘‘ Documents to Laid Upon the Table’’, ‘‘Committee Reports’’ and ‘‘ General business’’ with no elaboration.
Carterton District Council excluded the public from its meetings 10 times, often with vague explanations of the subjects for discussion.
Council corporate services manager Marty Sebire said there was no requirement under the Local Government Act to specify the general subject for discussion.
Some other councils were far more forthcoming.
Both Wellington City and Wellington Regional Council were totally transparent about subjects for nonpublic consideration.
Wellington City Council went into non-public session just four times and gave a clear explanation each time, including an occasion when councillors were to discuss a report to a non-public meeting session.
The regional council excluded the public almost as frequently as Upper Hutt – 14 times from 16 meetings – and the agendas gave the general subject for discussion every time.
Council democratic services manager Francis Ryan said the consultant who had advised the council on its meeting privacy practices was now employed in the Ombudsman’s office.
‘‘That person could scrutinise our processes if someone were to complain,’’ he said.