INDEPENDENT NEWS

Ombudsman To Test Concerns Council Workshops Are Undermining Local Democracy

Published: Thu 4 Aug 2022 02:09 PM
The Chief Ombudsman has launched an investigation into concerns that councils are undermining local democracy by using ‘workshops’ to discuss issues and make decisions behind closed doors.
Mr Boshier is taking action after becoming concerned about the use of workshops and other informal meetings by local authorities and the way some are excluding the public from meetings in general.
"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)."
"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 these meetings requirements can’t be avoided simply by calling what is really ‘meeting’ a ‘workshop.’
"The public may become suspicious if councils repeatedly use closed workshops or informal meetings to discuss issues."
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."
"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 CouncilTaranaki Regional CouncilTaupō District CouncilPalmerston North City CouncilRangitikei District CouncilWaimakariri District CouncilTimaru District CouncilClutha 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."
"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."
Surveying the agencies and the public
To assist in the investigations, the Chief Ombudsman will seek input from the public, councils and their staff. Throughout the course of the investigations, areas of good practice may be identified, and where any areas of weakness are found, suggestions may be made for improvement.
The survey looks at the councils’ processes, and peoples’ experiences with them. They are not designed to reopen individual cases. For a new complaint, the usual process of approaching the Ombudsman remains. The survey is open until 26 August 2022 and is available on the following link:Take part in the survey
Background
The investigations will be conducted under the Ombudsmen Act 1975. Under the Act, an Ombudsman may investigate the administrative acts, decisions, omissions and recommendations of the public sector agencies, and form an independent opinion on whether any aspect of their conduct was wrong, unreasonable or contrary to law.
The LGOIMA sets out the obligations of local authorities in respect of requests for official information, applications for a Land Information Memorandum (LIM), and the administration of local authority meetings. The Chief Ombudsman’s investigations will consider the administration of meetings.
Process
The investigations will consider current practices, and look at meetings, and the use of workshops, briefings and informal meetings held from the start of this electoral term (12 October 2019). The councils will be offered an opportunity to comment on the Chief Ombudsman’s provisional opinion. The final opinion will incorporate the councils’ comments and feedback.
The investigation will involve consideration of the Council’s supporting administrative structures, leadership and culture, policies, processes, practices, decision making and record keeping. It is anticipated the outcome of the investigations will be published in mid-2023.

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