Councillors debate public-excluded meetings

Michael Laws. Photo: ODT files
Michael Laws. Photo: ODT files
Regional councillors have called for greater transparency of council discussions, saying excluding the public should be done sparingly.

Prior to yesterday’s Otago Regional Council meeting, Cr Michael Laws had argued in an email to councillor colleagues that debates about Ngai Tahu committee nominees, lifting bus driver wages and allowing Port Otago access to a local government line of credit to pay for the new Otago Regional Council headquarters should not be held in secret.

At the meeting Cr Laws said excluding the public from discussions led to bad decision making and created a disconnect between "us the governors, and the governed, if you like".

The council agenda for the meeting said discussions on a "median wage uplift for bus drivers" were commercially sensitive and public discussion could disadvantage negotiations. The "appointment of iwi representatives for committees" should be private to protect individual’s privacy. And the agenda item listed as "on-lending agreement variation" ought to be held in a public-excluded session in order to maintain legal professional privilege, and because they were commercially sensitive.

Cr Laws’ view found support from several of his colleagues around the table.

While they agreed the appointment of iwi representatives should be in public-excluded, some councillors felt the other two agenda items should be public.

Cr Elliot Weir said all three met the threshold for being excluded, but that did not necessarily mean they had to be.

"The iwi reps i it absolutely makes sense to do that in public-excluded, but I agree with Michael about the median wage offer, I don’t see why that should be in public-excluded really. I understand that it might piss off the bus companies... "

Cr Tim Mepham said public-excluded should be used sparingly, while Cr Kevin Malcolm wanted the whole process of public exclusion to be examined.

While Cr Alan Somerville was happy for the three items to go into public-excluded, he wanted more discussion on the process.

"And personally, I guess, to have some greater knowledge about those reasons for exclusion and the risks around that so that can inform our decision making in future meetings."

Council interim chief executive Pim Borren said he had "a bit of sympathy" for Cr Laws’ position.

But he believed public exclusion was used sparingly, and there were good reasons for each of the three recommendations.

"I think the iwi appointments would be unusual to do in public, simply because it’s not rubber stamping, and I would’ve thought that unlike council members, who would know that’s a public process where you stand for election, I doubt that we warned these people that it could be a public process.

"So they’ve been nominated, but if we decided not to approve any of them that would be in the public arena and I think they ought to have known that that could have occurred."

He was comfortable with councillors over-ruling recommendations for public exclusion if they wanted to.

"I’m not asking you to simply rubber stamp staff recommendations."

Ultimately all three discussions were held in public-excluded. Crs Laws, Malcolm, and Gary Kelliher voted against moving into public-excluded, while Cr Weir abstained.