Secret meetings: Gag order on councillors
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.’’
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.