The Chief Ombudsman is “deeply concerned” about Rotorua Lakes Council’s commitment to transparency after investigating closed-door workshops.
Peter Boshier says the council has a history of opposition to openness that appears to still prevail, quoting a former mayor as saying “absolutely no way” to a suggestion the public be allowed to attend the sessions.
He is now calling for all councils to open workshops by default.
It follows a year-long Ombudsman’s office investigation into concerns councils were “undermining local democracy” by using workshops to discuss issues and “make decisions behind closed doors”.
He looked at eight councils including Rotorua.
In the Rotorua findings, released on Tuesday with comments dated June 2023, Boshier rejected the idea of the public being excluded because elected members did not want to appear “naive” during discussions.
Perceptions expressed by council staff and members of the public during the investigation left Boshier “deeply concerned about the council’s commitment to conducting its business with openness and transparency”.
In his opinion, it was “unreasonable” for Rotorua’s council to close forums by default and this allowed negative perceptions of openness and transparency to develop among staff and the public.
He recommended the council instead only close them to the public on a case-by-case basis. If it was public-excluded, the meeting topic and reason for closing it should be published.
Overall, he found no evidence actual decisions were made in workshops, but found some council practices went against openness principles.
Boshier also provided some positive feedback: “It is evident that the council has good practices around revisiting and considering for release material held in public excluded parts of meetings, and livestreaming and publishing recordings of meetings.”
He recommended the council take steps to avoid closing forums by default and report back to him within a month.
He said the council had accepted “most” of his 11 action points and his recommendations.
Boshier noted he began his investigation during the previous mayor Steve Chadwick’s tenure.
Former Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick. Photo / Laura Smith.
He said the current council had moved to greater openness by advertising forums held, but said they were still held out of the view of the public.
“I am not convinced by arguments that forums should be closed in order that elected members can feel more free to ask naïve questions – they are elected, and must be expected, to deal with appropriate levels of scrutiny.
“This is key to ensuring they remain accountable to the public.”
He called closed-door workshops an “ingrained aspect of the council’s culture”.
“At the suggestion that forums could be open to the public to help manage public perceptions of the council’s openness, the former mayor’s response, in a meeting with my investigators, was ‘absolutely no way’.
“This indicates a history of opposition to opening forums to the public and – based on the practices employed so far in the current triennium – that culture continued to prevail.”
Boshier said that in a meeting with him, the council’s then-chief executive said the council renamed workshops as forums due to the perceptions of secrecy that had developed around workshops.
Boshier believed the word change was not accompanied by much change in the way they were conducted, however.
While the pool of respondents to a public survey was small at 88, Boshier said feedback for the council was overwhelmingly negative.
One respondent said of the previous mayor and council: “The mayor and some councillors were very disrespectful to the councillors who did not agree with them during the meetings I attended or watched online. They belittled the councillors and also the residents of Rotorua.”
Boshier suggested the council review its practices around public participation in meetings.
Boshier said the council would review and revise government practices and support structures to ensure best practice, alignment with legislative requirements, and reliable and responsive support to the council in the 2023/24 year.
“I look forward to further productive engagement with the council in the months to come as it works through my recommendations and suggested action points.”
A Local Democracy Reporting investigation in 2021 revealed over the three years to 2020, 31 councils held 937 workshops, and 737 were closed to the public. Rotorua Lakes Council excluded public from all of its 37 workshops.
In response to the findings, Rotorua mayor Tapsell, who was sworn in a year ago, said the issues highlighted arose with the previous council, and she believed the new one was in a “significantly better place”.
“We have created significantly more transparency by opening up as much as possible to the public, whether that’s workshops or including parts of confidential reports into the public arena and only discussing items that genuinely need to be confidential due to commercial sensitivity.
“Even then we would now release that information as soon as practically possible,” Tapsell said.
Interim council chief executive Gina Rangi, appointed after Geoff Williams quit last month, said the council did not “completely agree with all the Chief Ombudsman’s views”, but took his report on board and was implementing “a number of recommendations”.
She said the council appreciated Boshier’s acknowledgement of improvements to meeting and workshop practices.
Asked to expand on her comment to investigators, former mayor Chadwick said: “I think the team at the time all understood the way we ran workshop … our process was that the public was excluded.”
“Any policy decision that came out of a workshop went to the committee or council.”
She said it was the current council’s call if it wanted to make workshops open by default, but she believed it “would be very hard for them to grapple the very complex issues with the public present”.
In March 2021 Rotorua businessman Justin Adams complained to the Ombudsman over the council not providing enough information on the content of public-excluded workshops.
He said on Tuesday he believed the new council had made “a good start” on improving transparency, and agreed workshops should be open by default. He also wanted details on workshop content and reasons for excluding the public.
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.