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Open democracy has taken a blow at the Dunedin City Council.
The mayor and councillors continue to learn about and discuss many important matters in workshops with the media and public excluded.
They avoid the provisions of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act by deeming the workshops informal and not classifying them as meetings. Technically, they might be correct. But what they are doing — and the scale with which they are doing it — is in clear breach of the purpose and spirit of the Act. They are shutting down the chance for public understanding of many issues and where councillors stand on these.
Inevitably, as Cr Lee Vandervis said, some can become a "muzzling exercise". He backs some of the workshops but said many are used to stifle debate and a lot of decisions are precariously close to being made "or certainly coming to consensus, as Mayor Cull likes to say".
Dave Cull, meanwhile, has said councillors are presented with such a large amount of complex information it is impractical to try to absorb all of it during one council meeting. He was not in favour of publicising the workshops or making them public because councillors could ask "stupid questions" and explore options which otherwise might not be viable.
Councillors in public might hesitate or hold back with their views and questions.
These, however, are very reasons most of these meetings should be in public. It is the so-called "stupid questions" that ordinary people and the public themselves ask and for which they want answers. Councillors in touch with common understandings and attitudes have performed valuable service over the years asking "stupid questions", the ones "superior" councillors might have been afraid to bring forward.
Crucially, open council debate gives the public the chance to know how their councillors think, how they contribute and where they are coming from. Even if few of the public attend, there is at least that opportunity.
Councillors should have the courage of their convictions so that their views, even as they are being formed, are available.
If they are not prepared to say certain things in public they should not be doing so in private.This desire for "consensus" and unity can be unhelpful.
Councillors come from different backgrounds and have different agendas. Differences are fundamental to democracy and the politics of local government. Disagreements, while perhaps upsetting some equilibrium, are healthy.
Although councillors need to be civil with each other, vigorous debate prompts interest and involvement. Instead, a bland council agreeing on most matters alienates many voters. Unless they also agree with the council party line or "consensus" — be it on cycleways, the Mosgiel pool or whatever — they feel the council lacks an acknowledgement of their perspective. The fact councillors do not properly debate their views can make them feel they are ignored.
The list of subjects covered by workshops is central to everything the council does, emphasising their anti-democratic and secret role. There has been the likes of the long-term plan, freedom camping, urban water quality strategy, parking, LED lighting, Central City Cycle Network, Mosgiel pool and the annual plan, urban design and heritage. The list goes on.
It is fair enough on some complex matters to provide background information, although that is what staff papers are for. But, as one local government specialist said, secrecy is bad for local democracy. It lessens public scrutiny and it exacerbates the disconnect between councils and the public.
There are several new councillors on the Dunedin City Council, and, disturbingly, they have been taught to believe this more "comfortable" way is how the council should be run.
On the surface, burying most debate and discussion in workshops can give the appearance of a council running smoothly. But in the community disconnect and discontent simmers.