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Council’s ‘fortress mentality’ when sharing info


Extensions in line with act – SWDC

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People dissatisfied with slow or late responses to requests for information from South Wairarapa District Council have had their misgivings confirmed by the council’s own data.

New figures from SWDC showed 31 per cent of official information requests sent to them last year needed an extension of time.

Martinborough resident Martin Freeth said he had been frustrated by SWDC response to some of his requests.

“It really is a hindrance to people doing more useful work on local issues,” he said, saying the qualms about SWDC performance on information releases were widely held. Many had experienced slow or partial responses.

He cited an example where he had asked for two sets of data; the number of SWDC employees for the past five years, including 2021, and the numbers of rateable properties in the urban, commercial and rural categories.

“No request could have more particularity, to use the act’s terminology, and you would think council officers would have such numbers readily to hand and able to be handed out within a day or so.”

After 17 working days, he had still not received a response.

“A cynic would ask, does this council not know how many people it employs?”

Freeth had asked for the information to help the council in its chief executive performance process analysis.

“If the council is going to ask for public input on something as important as that review, surely it wants that input to be as well informed as possible. The council seems to have a fortress mentality on information release.”

He said a proactive approach to information releases would work well, focusing on what people wanted to understand about how SWDC worked, how it arrived at key decisions, and how it spent money.

The Times-Age asked SWDC under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act how many requests it had responded to within statutory timeframes.

A spokesperson said in the 12 months until June 30, SWDC had received 135 LGOIMA requests.

“During this period, all requests were responded to within the 20-working day timeframe. Ninety-three of these responses either provided the information in full or advised that we required an extension,” they said.

“Forty-two of the 135 requests we received required an extension.”

A one-week extension was needed by 24 requests, and a two-week extension by 10. No information was available for the remaining eight responses.

“Eight response dates have not been recorded in our register. One of these responses was sent on our behalf by a contracted organisation,” they said.

The main reason SWDC needed extra time was to collate information, they said.

“We aim to respond to requests for information as soon as reasonably practicable. At times we do require the use of an extension for the purpose of collecting all the relevant information in response to a request. This is in accordance with Section 14[1] Extension of time limits. If we require an extension, we always advise the requestor that extra time is required.”

The Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 required local authorities to respond to requests no later than 20 working days after receiving the request. Information held should be made available unless there was good reason to withhold it.

Freeth said the council seemed always to default to the [LGOIMA] act’s 20-working-day deadline when responding to information requests. This was despite a provision in the act that

decisions on releasing information should be “as soon as reasonably practicable”.

“The council insists it doesn’t have to respond until the final day in every case. I’ve had experience of longer than 20 days and when I query this, have been told ‘it’s the holiday season’,” he said.

He suspected the volume of information requests received might slow the process and sympathised with SWDC staff. He thought the slow answers themselves probably caused more problems.

“The slacker they are about full, timely communication and the slower they are in responding to questions, the more irritable and inquiring people become,” he said.

“Of course, it is incumbent on us all not to pummel the council with meaningless or vexatious requests and to cut them a little slack at busy times.

“But the big issue here is the council’s level of understanding about the need to build public credibility and trust through proactive and full communication at the right times, this backed up with an open and efficient flow of information on request. It’s called democracy.”

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