Private ORC discussions continuing

Michael Laws says workshops should be held in public unless there were "exceptional commercial...
Michael Laws says workshops should be held in public unless there were "exceptional commercial reasons''. Photo: ODT files

The Otago Regional Council is continuing to privately discuss important issues.

The council has held 15 sessions this year of non-public "workshops'' which covered more than 40 topics.

Figures released under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act show last year it held 24 of these workshops, the largest number in the last eight years.

The number of topics discussed, 52, was about average for this period.

In the past year these topics included water quality, the Dunedin bus hub and several on minimum flows.

Cr Michael Laws said workshops had become an "anti-democratic disease'' throughout all local government in New Zealand.

"Workshops have become a secretive way to discuss council business, lobby for a particular view, and then truncate debates that should be held in either committees or at full council.''

They should be held in public unless there were "exceptional commercial reasons'', he said.

"No mayor, chairman or councillor should ever be advancing viewpoints in private that they're not prepared to own in public.''

Cr Michael Deaker said he was fine with workshops as long as the council did not "get anywhere approaching decision-making''.

"I'm not particularly concerned about it. They give staff the opportunity to give free, frank and fearless advice, then we go into public session and have a debate.''

It was important for the discussion to occur in the public arena, he said.

Openness at the council had improved since the early-2000s when the council spent "an awful lot of time in workshops'', he said.

"We thought `it's getting to be a bit crazy and we shouldn't be doing all this talking behind closed doors'.''

Council chairman Stephen Woodhead said no decisions were made at workshops and the council recorded what was discussed.

"Workshops are very helpful in understanding the background to complex issues. They are educative and very useful for councillors to understand new information.

"Often the content discussed in workshops comes to council or committees for discussion and decisions to be made.''

 

Comments

"Workshops are very helpful in understanding the background to complex issues. They are educative and very useful for councillors to understand new information."

I don't see any reason how this comment, or any in the article for that matter, justify the secrecy.

Let's not forget who pays the wages, and who elects the councillors. Transparency is the necessary backbone of a good democracy.

The component we forget is that it's often council staff utilising workshops to promote the agenda of the bureaucracy, and providing information that can't be publicly tested or independently scrutinised ... because it's in a workshop. Realistically, far more important than governance conversations in secret. The latter will come out when the decision is made, the former is tucked away.