Se­cret meet­ings: Gag or­der on coun­cil­lors

Waikato Times - - Front Page - Ellen O’Dwyer [email protected]

Waikato dis­trict coun­cil­lors have been gagged from talk­ing about the coun­cil’s se­cret meet­ings, rais­ing more con­cerns about open­ness and ac­count­abil­ity.

All coun­cil­lors were sent an email on Wed­nes­day from the com­mu­ni­ca­tions team, urg­ing them not to give com­ments to Stuff and to re­fer to state­ments al­ready made by mayor Al­lan San­son and chief ex­ec­u­tive Gavin Ion. The stonewalli­ng comes af­ter Stuff re­vealed the coun­cil had been meet­ing roughly once a week be­hind closed doors.

And an ex­pert on open gov­ern­ment has called the move ‘‘out­ra­geous’’, ar­gu­ing elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives need to be ac­count­able for their views.

The coun­cil held 161 work­shops in the 2016-2019 three-year term, in­for­ma­tion re­ceived un­der the Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment Of­fi­cial In­for­ma­tion and Meet­ings Act re­vealed.

Work­shops are not pub­licly ad­ver­tised and have no pub­lished min­utes. Other coun­cils, gov­ern­ment or iwi rep­re­sen­ta­tives can at­tend, but the pub­lic and me­dia can­not.

Coun­cil com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager Ja­cob Quinn con­firmed he sent an email urg­ing coun­cil­lors to re­fer to the mayor or chief ex­ec­u­tive’s com­ments when Stuff asked them for their per­sonal view. When asked why elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives could not share their views, Quinn said the mayor and chief ex­ec­u­tive acted as ‘‘spokes­peo­ple’’ for coun­cil-wide is­sues. But when Stuff pressed for an in­ter­view with chief ex­ec­u­tive Gavin Ion about work­shops, it was de­clined.

‘‘In terms of trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity, my door is al­ways open,’’ Ion said in a writ­ten state­ment.

‘‘The coun­cil has made the de­ci­sion that work­shops are not pub­licly ad­ver­tised, un­less there is a spe­cific need to do so.’’

Work­shops were an op­por­tu­nity for coun­cil­lors, staff and stake­hold­ers to join to­gether for in­for­mal dis­cus­sion and opin­ion shap­ing about im­por­tant is­sues, he said.

Quinn main­tained the coun­cil was open, and coun­cil­lors’ views were ac­ces­si­ble through pub­lic cell­phone num­bers on the coun­cil’s web­site.

Five out of 10 con­tacted coun­cil­lors com­mented on work­shops: New­cas­tle ward coun­cil­lor Noel Smith, Whanga­marino ward coun­cil­lor Jan Sedg­wick, Nga¯ ru­awa¯ hia ward coun­cil­lor Janet Gibb, Huntly ward coun­cil­lor Shel­ley Lynch and Tu¯ a¯ kau ward coun­cil­lor Jac­qui Church. Oth­ers de­clined to com­ment or did not re­spond to mes­sages left for them.

Max Rash­brooke, se­nior as­so­ciate at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity’s In­sti­tute for Gov­er­nance and Pol­icy stud­ies, called the in­ter­ven­tion ‘‘out­ra­geous’’.

‘‘You have got coun­cil staff telling coun­cil­lors they should not ex­press an opin­ion on whether they should do more things in pub­lic.

‘‘At the very least coun­cil­lors have to be able to de­fend the de­ci­sions they take to ex­clude the pub­lic or not ex­clude the pub­lic. I think that is com­pletely un­ac­cept­able.’’

It sug­gested any hint of con­trast­ing opin­ions within coun­cil was a prob­lem, when that was ex­actly what should hap­pen on mat­ters of real demo­cratic im­por­tance, Rash­brooke said. ‘‘I don’t think on an is­sue like that you can have the mayor be­ing the spokesper­son, this is the most cru­cial thing from which we need to hear the views of elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

‘‘Coun­cils need to jus­tify very very care­fully why pri­vate work­shops are nec­es­sary’’, he said, adding there should be ‘‘na­tion­wide scru­tiny’’ for why they are used.

‘‘I don’t think any­one would ex­pect no meet­ings at all to be held in pri­vate, some de­ci­sion making is bet­ter without peo­ple wor­ry­ing about what they want to say.’’

It was dif­fi­cult to know how dam­ag­ing work­shops were without more re­search on the topic, Rash­brooke said. But he had heard of an ‘‘ex­plo­sion’’ in the use of work­shops around the coun­try.

Rash­brooke thought com­mer­cial sen­si­tiv­ity was of­ten overused as an ex­cuse to keep top­ics pri­vate.

When Stuff con­tacted deputy mayor Ak­sel Bech about work­shops, he de­clined to com­ment.

‘‘On this par­tic­u­lar mat­ter, the mayor and chief ex­ec­u­tive have pro­vided quite ex­ten­sive com­ment, and I am happy to stand by their words.

‘‘I don’t have fur­ther com­ment.’’ When asked why he did not want to com­ment, Bech re­peated ‘‘be­cause the mayor and chief ex­ec­u­tive have al­ready spo­ken on it’’.

Bech re­fused to give his per­sonal views. ‘‘Rather than agree­ing or dis­agree­ing, I am sim­ply not pro­vid­ing com­ment.’’

Most coun­cil­lors Stuff spoke to said work­shops were used for gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion from staff, ask­ing ques­tions, dis­cussing and de­bat­ing is­sues. New­cas­tle ward coun­cil­lor Noel Smith said he felt more work­shops could be open but he did not en­tirely dis­agree with San­son’s de­ci­sion to keep them closed.

Work­shops were a re­laxed set­ting for dis­cus­sion and an ideal place for a ‘‘bit of ban­ter and argy-bargy’’.

‘‘In the com­mit­tee struc­ture and for­mal­ity of coun­cil, you have a topic, a rec­om­men­da­tion, and the stand­ing or­ders give you the right to speak only once. That for­mal sense does not al­low for free flow of de­bate.’’

Some is­sues were dis­cussed more at work­shops, while oth­ers were de­bated more at pub­lic meet­ings.

A lot of time was spent dis­cussing the dis­trict plan re­view, Smith said.

He said that while trans­parency was im­por­tant, there were is­sues – such as those deal­ing with com­mer­cial sen­si­tiv­ity or per­sonal pri­vate in­for­ma­tion – that should re­main con­fi­den­tial. And there was a gen­eral feel­ing coun­cil­lors wanted to speak without fear of be­ing quoted, Smith said.

Huntly ward coun­cil­lor Shel­ley Lynch agreed.

‘‘We have got to be able to re­lax and talk about things,’’ Lynch said.

Work­shops gave coun­cil­lors the chance to ask ques­tions.

‘‘It is use­ful when we are deal­ing with a lot of tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion, en­gi­neer re­ports, it gives us the chance to get more in­for­ma­tion and dis­cuss things.’’

TOM LEE/STUFF

Writer and re­searcher Max Rash­brooke said he thought it was out­ra­geous that coun­cil­lors were be­ing dis­cour­aged from shar­ing their views. Waikato Dis­trict Coun­cil chief ex­ec­u­tive Gavin Ion, mayor Al­lan San­son and democ­racy man­ager Bren­dan Stringer.

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