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Council defends use of closed workshops for educating members

Council defends use of closed workshops for educating members
The ombudsman has called for more council transparency nationwide, specifically around closed door workshops.

Ashburton council’s chief executive says they operate with transparency, but admitted many workshops were closed to the public in the last financial year.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier investigated eight councils over concerns they were using closed-door workshops to make decisions free from public scrutiny.

The findings, published at the end of October, confirmed that some councils had been closing all workshops to the public by default. He found no evidence of decisions being made behind closed doors.

The Ashburton District Council was not included in the investigation but Boshier’s recommendations covered all regions.

Ashburton only opened eight of 34 workshops to the public in the last financial year, with the council boss saying this was for educational purposes.

Boshier did not consider "controversy, complexity, or the potential for embarrassment" to be valid reasons to exclude the public.

Nor was the concern raised by some councillors and officials that "asking questions [in public] could make them look stupid".

Boshier highlighted the Local Government Act's requirement that councils should conduct business in an "open, transparent, and democratically accountable manner".

Ashburton’s chief executive Hamish Riach said this was case in Ashburton.

“I believe we rate well in terms of transparency in decision making, but it’s always a good exercise to reflect on how we are doing and look for ways we can encourage public participation.

“We were early adopters of video live-streaming, and meeting and workshop information published online."

In the 22/23 financial year there was a higher amount of closed workshops, Riach said.

“With a new term of elected members requiring educational sessions, there were 34 workshops of which eight were open.”

The workshop topics were around strategic and financial planning, economic development and tourism, commercial property, regulatory, infrastructure and open spaces.

The council kept records of all meetings and workshops, and they hold six-weekly activity briefing workshops, “which show work across all council teams, and these are open to the public and media” he said.

"All council decisions are made at full council, unless a committee has specific delegated authority, the majority of which are in open meeting."

Workshops are closed when there is commercially sensitive information or issues being discussed that affect a person’s privacy, Riach said.

“They are also closed when educational sessions are held to support a learning environment for the elected members.

“Most of our [long-term plan] and annual plan budget workshops are open to the public except for when commercial or private information is planned to be discussed.”

The Ombudsman’s investigation focused on the Rotorua Lakes Council, Taranaki Regional Council, Taupo District Council, Palmerston North City Council, Rangitikei District Council, Waimakariri District Council, Timaru District Council, and Clutha District Council.

By Jonathan Leask