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Local Government

TCDC slams door on Open Government Reform

In a stunning display of arrogance and a stubborn rebuff to advocates of open government, TCDC councillors have voted to continue their controversial use of closed workshops and briefings out of public view and with no record of their proceedings.
 |  Geoffrey Robinson  | 

TCDC is now glaringly out of step on this issue, with councils as nearby as Matamata-Piako District Council and as large and complicated as Auckland Council having altered their policies in favour of open workshops.

At their June 27 meeting, TCDC councillors voted 4-3, with little debate, to reject recommendations for increased transparency from both the NZ Chief Ombudsman and senior TCDC governance staff.

Those present voted in favour of a resolution to “Retain the Status Quo (Do Nothing)” with “workshops to continue as they currently do” – closed to the public and with no public record. Mayor Salt was absent from the Council meeting, failing to lead on this issue. One councillor abstained and another known to favour open workshops was unable to attend.

Closed workshops and briefings have been a transparency loophole exploited by a number of councils around the country, prompting numerous complaints to the office of the Ombudsman and resulting in a comprehensive report released on 24 October 2023 recommending change. The Ombudsman recommended councils adopt a principle of openness by default for all workshops and briefings, with public notice in advance and a range of options for effective record-keeping and/or recording.

At the request of councillors, TCDC governance staff reviewed the report and concluded that “changes to our processes around workshops would be required” to ensure openness, transparency, and accountability for the public and to meet the Ombudsman’s recommendations.

The staff response presented by Governance Manager Ariana Hay on June 27 recommended Council agree “to adopt in principle openness by default for all workshops (briefings, networking, and forums, etc), including a commitment to a clear basis for closure, where justified, on a case by case basis”. Her report recommended that the time, date, venue, and subject matter of all workshops be publicised on the council’s website in advance, along with the rationale for closing them where applicable.

The TCDC governance team also recommended provision for in-person public attendance and record-keeping of workshop proceedings with publication on the council’s website, ensuring a clear audit trail, including duration of the workshop (briefing, forum, or networking day), people present, and the general subject matter covered.

Staff offered two very similar options for Council consideration to achieve the increased meeting openness.

Option One provided for basic record-keeping and reporting with only marginal costs for administration and notification.

Option Two called for more technically robust audio-visual recording of the proceedings, with some additional resourcing requirements and costs as incurred for regular Council meetings.

Governance Manager Hay recommended that Council approve Option One, thereby achieving increased openness, transparency and accountability for the public at the least cost.

Anyone reading the TCDC website or its weekly public relations notice would have little idea of what actually came next. According to the council’s PR department, it was decided that “workshops will continue to be closed because they are for elected member training and upscaling, and to receive briefings from staff.” The council assured readers that no decisions are made behind those closed workshop doors – not to worry.

But the meeting recording tells a very different story.

After a few opening comments around the table, including a minor rant by Cr Deli Connell explaining she was just “grumpy”, a forceful Cr John Morrissey took charge of the discussion and deftly ran any chance of reform off the rails. The merits of the staff recommendation and the substance of the Ombudsman’s lengthy report had barely been mentioned when Morrissey took a quick procedural off-ramp and moved that the Council approve Option Three – to keep the status quo and do nothing. From this point, a cringe-worthy show of doublespeak, evasion, code words, and obfuscation by councillors was on full display.

Morrissey noted reform was not mandatory and reminded his colleagues that workshops were a place for what he judiciously called, “full and frank discussions.” They are a place for “not worrying about what is said,” he added.

Open workshops would be “a noose around our necks”, Morrissey said. Cr Robyn Sinclair was a little less circumspect, suggesting councillors “need a safe space to have difficult conversations …without a lot of scrutiny …a safe space to talk.” Cr John Grant, supporting Morrissey, suggested it was “healthy” to “not be on the record” as it “changes the dynamics and structure” of discussion.

The coded refrain “full and frank discussion” was repeated by Morrissey, who warned his fellow representatives of the potential loss of that closed-to-the-public “special space”.

As Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier wrote in his review for Parliament, “Local democracy is built on the premise that the closer decision makers are to the population they serve, the more the people can, and should, participate directly in decisions that affect their daily lives. This is an important task for councils to get right.”

“One-way local government can earn trust is through transparent decision making that is open to public involvement and scrutiny. Transparency, supports accountability, encourages high performance, and increases public confidence,” he wrote.

Voting against any change to the council’s policy of conducting closed-door public-excluded workshops and briefings were Cr John Morrissey and the three Mercury Bay Ward Crs Deli Connell, John Grant, and Rekha Giri-Percival.

Opposing the status quo (and supporting transparency options) were Thames Ward Crs Peter Revell and Martin Rodley and Deputy Mayor Terry Walker. Councillor Gary Gotlieb, who has supported change, was absent. The Mayor was MIA. After the vote, Morrissey expressed his happiness at the mayor’s absence.

Other councils are heeding the recommendations of the Ombudsman and making changes regarding “open government”. TCDC can revisit the closed-workshop issue -112 next time hopefully with all Council members, including the mayor, in attendance and on record. According to council’s Standing Orders (Sec 27.1), any councillor may file a Notice of Intended Motion to vote again on the governance staff recommendation at any future Council meeting.

In the meantime, district residents and ratepayers have an opportunity to make their own opinions known. The issue is far from dead.

According to the council’s PR department, it was decided that “workshops will continue to be closed because they are for elected member training and upscaling, and to receive briefings from staff.”  The council assured readers that no decisions are made behind those closed workshop doors – not to worry.