Judge Peter Boshier yesterday released a report on Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 (LGOIMA) practice and compliance at local authorities, which included the Invercargill, Tauranga and Porirua City Councils and the Buller District Council.
The investigation looked at how councils dealt with requests for official information, produced land information memorandum reports and administered council meetings in accordance with the LGOIMA.
The purpose of the Act is to increase information availability and promote open and public transaction of business at meetings.
Judge Boshier acknowledged there had been a positive "culture shift" at the Invercargill City Council.
While chief executive Clare Hadley was working to encourage openness and accountability, he believed there was "significant room" for the council to improve.
As part of the investigation, Judge Boshier conducted a survey of council staff, whose ratings of elected members were among the lowest of the councils investigated. The Invercargill survey drew 135 staff responses.
Only 34% said Sir Tim was "moderately or strongly supportive" of openness and public participation at the council; 43% said the same of elected members and 81% of Mrs Hadley.
Judge Boshier said the average across other local authorities investigated was 64% for mayors and 56% for elected members.
"These results suggest the mayor and elected members could do more within the organisation and publicly, to promote openness and transparency," he said in the report.
Judge Boshier made six recommendations and suggested 34 action points for the council.
He believed it had "unreasonably" failed to implement an official information practice, and minimal official information training was offered to staff.
The council did not have a dedicated official information request team. Only two staff members facilitated the process of responding to such requests, and they did so in addition to carrying out their full-time roles.
Judge Boshier also highlighted that the council did not live-stream its meetings, nor did it have official information policy, procedures or guidance, or a webpage for requests.
"The council appears to have acted contrary to law by failing to inform a requester of the reason for withholding information and by failing to inform requesters about their rights to complain to the ombudsman when a request was refused."
Tensions between the council and elected members, and among elected members themselves, were recognised, the investigator saying positive relationships were fundamental to openness and transparency.
"Achieving the purposes of LGOIMA largely depends on the attitudes and actions of leaders, including elected members."
Judge Boshier encouraged the council to develop a proactive release policy, and said elected members should use their council email addresses for all council business; some chose to use their personal ones at present.
Judge Boshier said the report was an opportunity for the council to build on its culture shift and increase its LGOIMA capability.
"I’m confident that the chief executive is committed to building capability and implementing my recommendations to effect positive change."
Yesterday, the council responded positively to the report, accepting all the recommendations and action points.
Mrs Hadley was pleased the commitment the council had made to develop a culture of openness — not only within council but also with stakeholders and the public — was acknowledged.
"We all know we can do more, especially in the areas Mr Boshier has commented on and particularly the need for better public information sharing and two-way communication.
"We accept his comments and endorse his recommended actions."
The Otago Daily Times asked Mrs Hadley specific questions about the report, but a council spokeswoman said the council had nothing further to add.