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Carterton councillors take a swipe at Ombudsman

The Ombudsman has faced fierce criticism from some Carterton councillors over his recommendations for councils to open workshops to the public.

During a recent Carterton District Council [CDC] meeting, one councillor said it’s “only one person’s opinion”, while another suggested the Ombudsman “might have a God complex”.

The office of Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier declined to comment on the specific criticisms.

Discussions around the Carterton District Council table last week were welcomed by Mayor Ron Mark, who supports opening workshops to the public.

Holding closed workshops could create a perception in the community “that we are trying to hide something which we’re not”, Mark said.

In October, Boshier released a number of recommendations following an investigation into councils holding secret meetings.

He recommended workshops should be open to the public by default to reduce the perception that decisions are being made behind closed doors.

“Elected members should be resilient enough to withstand reasonable public scrutiny. It is the job they are elected to do,” Boshier said at the time.

Councillor Brian Deller said he was concerned by the Ombudsman’s recommendations, and noted that people can join the council’s advisory groups for more detail on decision-making.

“The Ombudsman is only one person’s opinion, as I see it,” Deller said, prompting Mark to quickly interject that Boshier is “an officer of Parliament”.

Councillor Robyn Cherry-Campbell suggested “he [Boshier] might have a God complex”.

Cherry-Campbell later said having open workshops may discourage elected members from asking questions of clarification and may be a barrier for newly elected members who are still learning the ropes.

Deputy Mayor Dale Williams said councils must balance the desire to be efficient while also meeting the public’s expectations that “we are acting with integrity”.

“I’m sure we’ll find that spot, but hopefully we don’t create another layer of inefficiencies to what we do because there is plenty of that already.”

Williams suggested the decision could result in some councils holding “pre-workshop workshops”.

Many of Boshier’s expectations have already been met by CDC.

When it comes to workshops, CDC will look to publish a list of workshop topics and note if workshops are open or closed to the public.

High-level minutes from workshops will be made available to the public but the workshops will not be live-streamed.

Mark said it was good to see the council making “pragmatic steps to show that we are listening” to the Ombudsman’s recommendations, and noted that recording high-level minutes of the discussions will “go a long way in placating people’s fears and concerns”.

People who watch the council meeting get to see a debate and take confidence that two sides have been discussed, Mark said.

“That’s what they elect you for. They want to hear that. Workshops, they don’t hear that at all.

“They want to hear the argument and debate across options, and [not doing that] generates the perception that we’re doing stuff behind closed doors.”

Mark said the Ombudsman’s recommendations have “advantages and disadvantages”, but the findings had been made and the council is obliged to follow them.

Although the Ombudsman’s recommendations aren’t legally binding, they do carry a great deal of weight among public-sector officials and managers, he said.

The Office of the Ombudsman “respectfully declined” to comment. –NZLDR

LDR is local body
journalism co-funded
by RNZ and NZ On Air.

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Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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