Confidential council forums under the spotlight
When is a meeting not a meeting?
That’s the question a Rotorua businessman has put to the Ombudsman’s Office over Rotorua Lakes Council’s refusal to provide detailed information on the content of its public-excluded workshops and forums.
However, the council says workshops and forums are confidential because they provide “an opportunity for free and open discussion” ensuring elected members understand issues before they are presented in a public meeting.
Rotorua, which had 23 public-excluded workshops and forums in 2020, isn’t the only place that holds public-excluded workshops. Other councils do as well.
In a letter to the Office of the Ombudsman, Justin Adams, a consultant, says he fears confidential workshops provide for a “lack of transparency” and an “intellectual sleight of hand to avoid legal legitimate public scrutiny”.
The Ombudsman handles complaints about and investigates the administrative conduct of public sector agencies.
On February 24, Adams wrote to the Rotorua council, asking when the content of last year’s 23 public-excluded council workshops would be publicly released.
He also asked for the legal basis on which the public-exclusion was justified.
In response to Adams, Rotorua Lakes Council chief executive office manager Craig Tiriana provided an extract from the council’s 2020 Governance Statement.
“Forums or informal meetings are to brief elected members on emerging issues, or to get an indication of councillor preference before initiating a policy or project, or provide an opportunity for the council to develop ideas and to be informed on the options and issues the council may face.
“Forums cannot be used to make decisions. These sessions are not open to the public or media. The LGOIMA in relation to meeting establishment does not apply to forums.”
In response to Adams’ question asking when the content of the forums would be made available, Tiriana said the content or subject of the forums had already been listed.
That list included “annual plan forum 1” and “forum - open spaces policy development and Westbrook Sports Precinct”.
Adams says workshops and forums should be open to the public and only go into public-excluded sessions when appropriate.
“How can you expect the public to understand decision-making if you're hiding information?"
He also did not believe the title of a workshop or forum could be viewed as content.
“'Prostitution information session' - that could be anything."
He understands there are some things that need to be confidential but workshops and forums are, in his view, a meeting and the council “should be following the LGOIMA”.
From the way in which the council conducted a lot of these functions, it appeared it was operating on the basis that “less information for the public is better”.
He does not accept the council's response stating the basis for the public-exclusion of workshops or forums is its governance statement.
In his complaint to the Ombudsman, Adams says he has become “increasingly concerned at the amount of information being withheld or delayed from the public” by the council.
“As these workshops are regularly referenced in both council and committee meetings, they form the basis of decisions made in those meetings.
“Of particular concern is for [the] council to place an internal ‘Governance Statement’ above the law. To be clear on this, a workshop or forum is a meeting and therefore subject to the Act.”
He cites the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of a workshop, which includes the word “meeting”.
He says in his opinion the council can not declare workshops or forums exempt from the Act with an internal governance statement document.
“I am concerned, and fear that this lack of transparency is simply intellectual sleight of hand to avoid legal legitimate public scrutiny.
“I accept that there are legitimate reasons for excluding the public but to apply such a broad definition is simply abuse of the intention of the Act.”
Rotorua Lakes Council corporate planning and governance manager Oonagh Hopkins. Photo / File / Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post.
Rotorua Lakes Council corporate planning and governance manager Oonagh Hopkins told Local Democracy Reporting information in workshops and forums forms the basis for information reported and presented at formal meetings, which are open to the public and “where matters can be debated and discussed”.
“Reports and proposals that go before the formal [meetings] represent all the work and reasoning that has gone into the development of proposed or reviewed strategies, policies, bylaws and plans, including what came out of any informal workshops or forums that may have been held.”
She says this information wi also made available as part of community engagement and consultation to enable informed feedback from the public.
She says workshops and forums are informal meetings that can not be used to make decisions but are a way to “support informed decision-making”.
Hopkins says they include briefings for elected members and provide an opportunity for elected members to “provide input and direction into policies, plans, strategies and proposals” before formal meetings where decisions were made.
She says workshops and forums are confidential, because they provide “an opportunity for free and open discussion, exploring of options and alternatives, sharing of information and ensuring understanding of matters before they are presented in a public meeting”.
Confidential workshops are also for sharing information that might be confidential but relevant for elected members to “understand an issue, aid direction-setting and or assist later decision-making”.
An Office of the Ombudsman spokeswoman confirms Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has received Adams’ complaint on March 15 and acknowledged its receipt the same day.
“He is unable to provide any further detail as he is required by law to keep information about the complaints he receives confidential.”