Black hole of secrecy spreads

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    Local government’s startling rise in confidential workshops hit headlines last month when a Rotorua businessman asked the Ombudsman’s office to arbitrate over Rotorua Lakes Council’s refusal to provide detailed information on the content of its public-excluded workshops and forums.

    Justin Adams said he feared confidential workshops provided for a “lack of transparency” and an “intellectual sleight of hand to avoid legal legitimate public scrutiny”. 

    He had asked the Rotorua council when the content of last year’s 23 closed door council workshops would be publicly released and for the legal basis on which the exclusion was justified, later telling local democracy reporter Felix Desmarais, that while there are legitimate reasons for excluding citizens, “to apply such a broad definition is simply abuse of the intention of the Act”.

    The council in return said workshops and forums are confidential because they provide “an opportunity for free and open discussion”, ensuring elected members understand issues before they are presented in a public meeting.

    According to the Rotorua council’s 2020 Governance Statement, “Forums or informal meetings are to brief elected members on emerging issues, or to get an indication of councillor preference before initiating a policy or project, or provide an opportunity for the council to develop ideas and to be informed on the options and issues the council may face,” its chief executive officer said in response.

    I have reported Auckland’s local government structures for a working lifetime, from the historic Auckland City’s Town Hall and Keith Hay’s Mt Roskill Borough chambers to the story when the Parnell borough finally removed ordinances on the permitted length of hat-pins and rules for keeping pigs. 

    The rule of law was that shutting the citizenry out of legitimate “raw and naked debate” required a well-found justification and constraints were jealously guarded.

    The convenient rise in secrecy is symptomatic of managerialist council tactics that are as self-serving as they are unethical. It leaves officials in control of the information flow and is the antithesis of workable group process necessary for consensus. 

    On Waiheke, the incoming local board in December 2019 was almost immediately advised by officials to adopt closed meetings as a way of taming contentious discussion and allowing officials from council and Auckland Transport to brief board members frankly.

    It was opposed by board member and former chairman Paul Walden, whose board had held two business meetings a month in part to enable robust public forums. Mr Walden, like Mr Adams in Rotoroa, contended that workshops and forums should be open to the public and only go into public-excluded sessions when absolutely necessary.

    With the raft of planning documents due to be completed during the term, including reserve management plans and the Waiheke board’s 30-year Area Plan, he was dismayed about the loss of transparency and control of information to elected representatives.

    The board was advised by officials not to “over-consult” and, after two years behind closed doors, had only included a single month for public submissions. If you missed it, it occurred between the first and second lockdowns last year. Instead, a handful of “stakeholders” that included Waiheke businessmen Tony Pope and Berridge Spencer, a bare handful of island interest groups and thirteen iwi interests were recruited to inform the board. 

    The plans are now nearly complete and, predictably, include the controversial axing of Waiheke’s specific district plan and full amalgamation of the island into the Auckland Unitary Plan.

    The board will hold 11 workshops behind closed doors this month.

    It is somewhat of a relief that concern over this “black hole” in the transparency of local government has been brewing for some time.

    Legislation relevant to the governance system of local government is becoming increasingly inadequate in supporting robust and transparent community representation and decision-making, according to a recent briefing report from the Department of Internal Affairs to the Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta.

    It also suggests changes to obligations relating to meetings and long-term planning under the 2002 Local Government Act and – 11 years on from the establishment of Auckland Council as the unitary authority for the city – calls for a review of Auckland’s governance arrangements.

    The city had specific legislation regarding its operation that does not apply to other local authorities and that “has restricted the ability of Auckland Council to adjust aspects of their governance arrangements (such as the number of councillors and boundary issues) in the way that other territorial authorities are able to do”, the report says. 

    “Given that the new Auckland Council has been in place for over a decade, we consider it timely to review the settings to ensure the Council is well positioned for the future.”

    Liz Waters

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