Over the past year, Wairarapa councils have held more than 120 workshops and similar meetings that have been the subject of recent criticism from Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier.
Workshops are typically public-excluded forums attended by councillors and some council staff.
Boshier has called for councils to open workshops to the public by default to reduce the perception that critical council decisions are being made behind closed doors, after he launched an investigation in response to complaints that this practice is “undermining local democracy”.
New data obtained under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act show that, since last November, Masterton District Council [MDC] had 26, South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] 37, and Carterton District Council [CDC] 63 such meetings – 126 in total.
Spokespeople for the three councils confirmed while the meetings supported decision-making, no decisions were made in them.
Masterton mayor Gary Caffell said MDC is planning to make improvements.
“I will be working with the chief executive to identify ways we can improve transparency and accessibility to the public following the Ombudsman’s report,” Caffell said.
“Masterton District Council does not make decisions at workshops. They are used to provide elected members with background information to inform discussion and decisions at public council meetings,” he said.
CDC chief executive Geoff Hamilton said the workshops are mainly used to provide councillors with information.
“Workshops are primarily used to give elected members training, updates and presentations from staff and outside organisations on running the business that is council.
“It provides elected members the opportunity to gain knowledge on complex matters and ask questions in a protected environment, which better equips them for public meetings,” he said.
“You will see from the passionate debates our council has at its public meetings that no decisions are made at workshops.”
Hamilton said CDC has not yet discussed whether to open workshops to the public.
Amanda Bradley, SWDC’s general manager of its democracy and engagement team, made similar comments.
“They [workshops] provide an opportunity for councillors to deep dive into a topic with council officers, to build their knowledge and understanding, and to examine options,” she said.
“Decisions are not made in workshops, and this is clearly understood by elected members. The work of council is complex and, particularly in the first year of the council triennium, elected members require time to understand the scope of their responsibilities. Workshops and briefings are a good mechanism to support this process.”
Although Boshier’s investigation found no evidence that the eight councils he investigated – none of which were in Wairarapa – were making actual decisions in their public-excluded workshops, he did note “some degree of straw polling” that could be perceived that way.
“It is understandable that the public is sceptical when their elected members meet behind closed doors, particularly where the reasons for closing the meeting or workshop are not made sufficiently clear, and little or no information about what took place in a closed meeting or a closed workshop is made available after the fact,” Boshier said.
He also highlighted the Local Government Act’s requirement that local authorities should conduct business in an “open, transparent, and democratically accountable manner” and that, as such, all workshops should be open to the public by default, with their time and location advertised in advance and a full and accurate record kept.
These requirements apply to all informal sessions as well, Boshier said.
“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.”
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