160 council workshops we know little about
In the past 18 months, district councillors across the region have met 160 times behind closed doors at workshops – but there is no public record of what they said or did.
The number of workshops since the start of 2017 far exceeds the number of ordinary council meetings in that time, with Masterton District Council holding 48 workshops, South Wairarapa District Council 43, Tararua District Council 35, and Carterton District Council 34.
Full council meetings are generally held on a six-week cycle, meaning there would have been around 12 full council meetings each.
Mayors and officials are adamant that no decisions are made at workshops, but former Masterton mayor Bob Francis believes councillors should be aiming for maximum transparency.
Carterton Mayor John Booth insists his council had “no secrets” and workshops were merely a tool for councillors to clear up any confusion, in order to make the correct decisions.
“We are not making any decisions at workshops, there’s no way – I can tell you that now.”
Masterton Mayor Lyn Patterson is similarly clear that workshops were “not secret squirrel stuff”.
Tararua Mayor Tracey Collis said her council had used more workshops in the lead-up to its Long Term Plan due to the level of information and education required for the councillors to make informed decisions.
“I’m happy to take that slowly so we have all the background and a good understanding,” she said.
Collis said workshops were very helpful but the need for a council to be transparent was key to building confidence amongst ratepayers.
“Debate needs to happen in a public forum, so people know councillors are asking the right questions.”
South Wairarapa Mayor Viv Napier said workshops can prevent a lack of information holding up meetings.
“I know some councils stop a discussion if they don’t have enough information.
“They’ll stop a meeting, have a workshop and make the decision at a later council meeting.”
Napier said council’s use of workshops should give the ratepayers confidence.
“It has nothing to do with trying to hide anything, it’s so we can make good decisions with good understanding.”
The Office of the Ombudsman warns against excessive use of workshops which may make people “suspicious and unhappy” and create the perception of a predetermined decision when it is brought to a formal meeting.
Councils are not required to record minutes, provide agendas or make them open to the public or media.
Local Government New Zealand confirmed it was unlawful to make decisions at workshops or to even agree on a course of action to be voted into effect at a following council meeting without debate.
Masterton District Council acting chief executive, David Hopman, said workshops had been helpful, especially in preparation of an LTP. He emphasised that “none of the Long-Term Plan decisions were made during workshops”.
However, MDC last month excluded the public from deliberations on its LTP submissions which meant key changes to the plan were not immediately available to the public.
At the time, Patterson said the process would be improved, but the matter had not arisen in the past as “no public wanted to attend”.
However, Taxpayers’ Union executive director Jordan Williams said this was not an acceptable excuse. Such practices were “extraordinarily secretive”.
“We’re very concerned – we have come across decisions not being properly minuted which would otherwise be subject to public scrutiny,” he said.
Patterson said along with LTP information, workshops were used to provide newly-elected members with training and induction.
Councillors also required briefings on policy changes coming from central government.
“There is a lot of stuff coming from central government – the three waters review, the roading review,” she said.
“There is a lot of heavy policy stuff – councillors need to know about that, and they need to understand that.”
Francis said while he agreed workshops were useful for strategic development, councillors should be pushing for work to be done in public.
“I’ve been a great advocate all my life of open meetings and doing as little as possible in public excluded.”
Wairarapa Voice representative Ron Shaw said he had noticed the use of workshops had become commonplace.
“They use it to make sure the hard stuff is taken out of public view. Council meetings are more of a rubber stamp.”
The Ombudsman’s Office recommends agencies ensure accurate records are kept of workshops, which would “provide helpful evidence if there is later a dispute about whether a workshop was, in fact, a meeting”.