Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Chief Ombudsman to investigate 8 councils over closed door meetings

The Chief Ombudsman has launched an investigation into concerns that New Zealand’s councils are undermining local democracy by using ‘workshops’ to make decisions behind closed doors – with eight councils to be targeted.

Chief Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, said he was concerned about the use of workshops and other informal council meetings which excluded the public from discussions.

“There is nothing to prevent councils from holding workshops but I am concerned at reports that some councils may be using them to avoid their responsibilities under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 (LGOIMA),” Mr Boshier said.

“Councils must give advance notice of a meeting. They must also provide an agenda and supporting papers at least two days before. Even extraordinary meetings need to be organised and reasonable notice must be given. Importantly, meetings should be open to the public, unless there is good reason under LGOIMA to exclude them.”

Mr Boshier says the meetings requirements can’t be avoided simply by calling what is really ‘meeting’ a ‘workshop.’

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier.

“The public may become suspicious if councils repeatedly use closed workshops or informal meetings to discuss issues,” he said.

Mr Boshier says councils should be aware that holding workshops could create a perception that an issue has already been decided before it is brought to an open meeting for debate and a decision.

“I am aware another barrier to openness and transparency is the quality of note-taking and record-keeping during these informal workshops. The public are within their rights to make official information requests about what has been happening during these workshops so accurate accounts are a must.”

Mr Boshier says he’ll also be looking at the general approach by councils to notifying and organising meetings in general.

“This investigation is particularly timely. This year is the 35th anniversary since LGOIMA was passed by Parliament. One of the foundations of the law is to promote the open and public transaction of business at meetings of local authorities,” the Chief Ombudsman said.

“Local government meetings must be open to everyone unless councillors pass a formal resolution to exclude the public.

“I am aware some councils may be incorrectly applying the law when making these formal resolutions.

“Local bodies are not allowed to exclude the public from meetings so they can hold ‘free and frank’ discussions behind closed doors. Yet I fear this may happening.

“Councillors are elected to provide a voice for the communities they serve. They should feel free to express their opinions in the same way robust exchanges occur in the debating chamber of Parliament.”

Mr Boshier says the investigation, using his powers under the Ombudsmen Act, will focus on eight councils across the country. The councils are:

  • Rotorua Lakes Council
  • Taranaki Regional Council
  • Taupō District Council
  • Palmerston North City Council
  • Rangitikei District Council
  • Waimakariri District Council
  • Timaru District Council
  • Clutha District Council

“The investigation will look at mix of different sized councils, both urban and rural. I’ll be surveying the public, elected members and council staff in those areas,” he said.

“I have chosen these councils for a variety of reasons. Some councils are getting it right. I want to understand how they achieve this and share their good practices with other councils so we can all learn from this investigation.”

“I am aware local elections are coming up. I want to make clear this investigation is not about the conduct of individual elected representatives. My focus is on the way meetings and workshops are being organised and administered across the local government sector.”

A public survey is open until 26 August 2022 and is available on the following link:

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