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Closed-door workshops revealed


Almost 200 closed-door council workshops have been held in Wairarapa over a two-year period.

South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] racked up the highest number out of the three Wairarapa councils.

However, it also met publicly the most – more than twice as much as the other Wairarapa councils.

For the current triennium [starting October 2019], South Wairarapa councillors attended 71 closed-door workshops until the end of September this year.

This compared with 67 in Masterton and 56 in Carterton for the same period.

Over the same period, 178 SWDC meetings were held that were open to the public.

This included committees, community board meetings, and hearings.

Masterton District Council [MDC] held 69 meetings that were open to the public, and Carterton District Council [CDC] held 75.

South Wairarapa Mayor Alex Beijen and chief executive Harry Wilson said SWDC strongly supported “transparency of decision-making and robust discussion in the public forum”.

“This triennium, we have carefully considered whether there are justifiable reasons to hold each and every scheduled workshop and have only scheduled workshops if we believe there are valid reasons for doing so,” they said.

“The need to ensure public access to decision-making is considered every time.

“A valid reason for a workshop might be for an officer check-in with elected members to ensure they have understood council direction, or to get direction at the start of a project, or to explain/brief elected members on a complicated topic, to develop strategy/ideas/plans for consultation, for training purposes, or for outside organisations to update elected members on topics of special interest to our district.

“No decisions can be made at workshops.”

Examples of SWDC’s closed-door workshops included 15 Long-Term Plan workshops, one code of conduct workshop [to start a review with a view to moving to the Local Government New Zealand template with modifications], and five rates workshops from the start of August this year to the end of September.

Beijen and Wilson said during the 2018/2019 year, the finance, audit, and risk committee became a formal committee. Meanwhile, the infrastructure and services working party was disbanded in favour of a new committee structure that enabled public access to meetings.

“This improved public access to council discussions and the process behind decision-making.

“There are approximately half the workshops held per year now than in the 18/19 year.

“This is despite needing to hold elected member inductions and meaty strategic topics such as the Annual Plan and Long-Term Plan development and the Three Waters Reform.”

The topics discussed at MDC workshops included climate change [six workshops], the civic centre [seven workshops], and the Long-Term Plan [23 workshops].

There were almost as many closed-door workshops in Masterton as open meetings.

Masterton Mayor Lyn Patterson said the range of council activities that elected members had oversight of was “broad, and often technical and complex”.

“Workshops provide an opportunity for staff to provide detailed information and to brief elected members, and for elected members to ask questions and/or seek additional information to clarify their understanding of the situation or a service.”

She said some of the workshops could be better described as briefings, such as when the government announced new requirements.

“Some workshops are used to canvas interest in a topic that is not mandatory business before staff spend time researching the topic and writing formal reports for decisions.”

She said workshops were not public “as this encourages questions to be asked openly”.

“When it comes to decision-making, this occurs at publicly-notified meetings, where full reports are available, with the exception of matters discussed in public-excluded.”

Topics discussed at Carterton workshops included covid-19 community recovery planning [nine workshops], wastewater treatment plant updates [four workshops], and the Long-Term Plan [10 workshops].

Carterton chief executive Geoff Hamilton said the workshop process allowed elected officials “greater insights into new processes than would otherwise be available”.

“It would be remiss of council and councillors not to take the opportunity to call on specialist advice for topics of importance to ratepayers.

“The opportunity in workshops allows our elected representatives to be better informed, and therefore in a better position to make decisions on behalf of the community.”

“Decision-making in that forum is ultra vires [beyond the scope of power] and contrary to the intent of the workshop itself.”

SWDC, MDC, and CDC workshop agendas were obtained through the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act [LGOIMA]. — NZLDR

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