Southland’s straight-shooting ratepayers probably don’t love all the decisions their district council makes but at least they know about them.

Newsroom asked nine councils in the lower South Island how they dealt with transparency and reviewed dozens of agenda papers to compare openness.

The issue is the subject of an Ombudsman’s investigation as people become increasingly concerned that councils may be getting too secretive.

Seeing who supports what and why around council tables creates important connections between communities and their representatives.

It’s also information that comes in handy at election time.

The repeated use of closed workshops, sometimes immediately before public meetings, is one focus of chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier’s investigation.

The worry is such sessions are being used for pre-emptive discussion of agenda items, which can shut ratepayers out from hearing and understanding debates on things that directly affect them.

It doesn’t happen everywhere, however.

Workshops are rarely held before Southland District Council meetings says communications manager Louise Pagan.

When held, workshops are often publicly live-streamed, something not observed at other local authorities.

The Southland council’s community boards never hold them ahead of their bi-monthly meetings, but in the months between, to discuss technical matters well before agendas are set.

“For example, at a workshop staff may discuss what a particular bylaw is about, then at a subsequent meeting the board may be requested to provide feedback on any required changes to the bylaw,” Pagan says.

South District Council at its April meeting. Photo: Supplied

On average the council discusses an item a meeting with the public excluded.

This is the lowest rate of the councils spoken to, with Central Otago District Council the highest at more than four items a meeting.

Secrecy central

Central Otago has closed-door sessions before all full-council and community-board meetings.

At its April 19 council meeting it dealt with 10 public-excluded items taking up a full afternoon session.

Asked if agenda items are discussed at the informal meetings or workshops, acting chief executive Louise van der Voort says only that this is not the purpose of such meetings.

Their business is discussion of governance matters and anything else those present want to raise.

She says there have been 71 public-excluded items in the past 18 months, which includes previous council non-public minutes, community board and committee non-public minutes and governance reports.

The April meeting included a public-excluded item under the opaque heading “proposal to revoke a resolution”. 

The council has not stated what the resolution or original decision were but insists it provided “everything required under standing orders in accordance with the law”.

It says the resolution and report will be released after the minutes are confirmed at the council’s next meeting on June 28.

Most councils contacted also confirm their confidential minutes in private.

But not the Southland District Council, Pagan says.

“When confidential minutes are confirmed this is done in an open meeting. The confidential minutes have been circulated to the members with their agenda.”

Further north Waitaki District Council opens its meetings immediately after each public-excluded item to give the public any decisions made.

At 15 meetings last year it listed 28 items, including the confirmation of minutes, as public-excluded, averaging just under two a meeting.

Queenstown-Lakes District Council says agenda items are discussed at its regular closed workshops but with the “explicit understanding” that no decisions can be made.

Debate and a decision are reserved for notified formal meetings, it says.

The council is one of few to publicly list the dates of workshops, a list of items discussed and those present.

Queenstown-Lakes says it also live-streams and publishes recordings of meetings on social media and hosts them in different locations around the district to make them accessible to the public.

It dealt with 27 public-excluded items at the past 17 meetings, an average of 1.3 a meeting.

Back down south at Clutha District Council – one of eight nationwide included in the Ombudsman’s study – no workshops are held before council or board meetings. 

The number of public-excluded items – 40 including 20 to confirm confidential minutes – has increased slightly over the past 18 months.

There and in Gore voter participation bucked the downward national trend by going up at last October’s local-body elections.

Regional authority Environment Southland holds closed “caucus” and staff-included sessions before its formal meetings but says agenda items are rarely discussed.

There are generally two public-excluded items on each council agenda, often confirming minutes or adopting committee resolutions.

“If you look at the 12 months of last year, of the 15 full council meetings, five had no public-excluded business and only seven had public-excluded items that were not the confirmation of minutes or the adoption of committee resolutions,” a council spokesperson says.

All eyes on Gore

In Gore no closed workshops are held by the council or its community boards and public-excluded items at council averaged four a meeting during 2022.

Live-streaming is proving popular for Gore District Council with 450 to 500 people regularly watching.

An exception was the recent extraordinary meeting called to pass a vote of no confidence in Mayor Ben Bell. Nineteen thousand people had tuned in for the meeting but the vote didn’t go ahead.

Invercargill and Dunedin City Councils each averaged three items a meeting being discussed as public-excluded last year.

Invercargill city’s governance and legal manager, Michael Morris, says the council does not have informal meetings or workshops that are closed to the public before meetings.

“Our Bluff Community Board has, on rare occasions, informal meetings or workshops that are closed to the public prior to a meeting and agenda items are not discussed.”

He says all reports pertaining to public-excluded sessions have a section that covers when a report can be released.

A Local Government New Zealand spokesperson told Newsroom councils should be as open and transparent as possible with their communities.

“As a first principle, meetings should be open to the public. Informal meetings are valuable as a place of discussion but we recommend confidentiality is limited as it is for a full council meeting.”

Otago Regional councillor Michael Laws reckons up to half of council business is now conducted behind closed doors in workshops and other less formal meetings.

He warns that ratepayer tolerance of the practice should not be taken for granted.

The former MP and mayor of Whanganui walked out of two recent council meetings in protest at items being discussed with the public excluded.

The Otago council averaged 2.5 items discussed with the public excluded in 12 full council meetings last year.

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

Jill Herron is a journalist based in Cromwell.

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