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Closed Workshops (3)

Judging by the reaction of Mayor Leach and Cr. Hoadley, I touched a raw nerve in my previous posts deploring the adoption of the 'closed door workshop' device by our nearly new Council. I maintain that this was more than simply in order to "better inform councilors", and was primarily aimed at avoiding any suggestion of public discord.

Credibility was somewhat frayed when the $100,000 TCB contribution to the Cycleway was decided on behind a 'closed door workshop', and only disclosed through the slip of a tongue within the 21 March TCB meeting. The contribution was supposed to have been hidden, and only used as a last resort as an incentive to encourage other boards to support the 'district' funding of the Cycleway.

It appears that a similar situation has arisen within the new Auckland City Transport which now controls $11.6b. in spending - in this case, the criticism is aimed directly at the council-controlled agency's non elected board taking twice as long to conduct business in closed session yesterday, and comes form the Automobile Association's Simon Lambourne. (Reported by Matthew Dearnaley in today's NZ Herald p. A7).

The principle is the same, and Simon Lambourne pointed out that the Board is a local government entity, and that "Aucklanders expect transparent governance". He drew attention to the fact that the Board's agenda was issued one day before the meeting and that it made no reference to the separate 'closed door' meeting.The agency's communication manager denied any attempt to conduct meetings in 'complete secrecy', and promised that all items to be discussed  confidentially would be set out in future public agenda.

Mr Lambourne applauded this new found desire for transparency, but indicated that he still believed that Auckland Transport was "out of step with the rest of local government in refusing to to provide staff reports before meetings". Chairman Mark Ford indicated that "members retained the right to read them before anyone else".

Our Council has a similar practice of making staff papers available on the day of the meeting, and only reluctantly to others who may wish to have the opportunity to read them - they are often distributed at morning tea or lunch-time to councilor desks, and only to the media on request. More importantly, non-members are seldom made aware of what is being discussed in the 'closed-door workshops'.

Both the Mayor, and Cr. Hoadley, may resent criticism over this practice, but they surely cannot deny that influence cloaked in the guise of 'information' is exerted behind closed doors in order to achieve certain pre-determined outcomes. We need to know what our representatives are being told - all information should be contestable, and we need to know what conclusions are being drawn and why - not simply told of decisions in open meeting.

I mention in passing the numerous meetings that have been held to 'inform' councilors about waste-water charging. Those of us who have been involved in debating this issue in the past are well aware of a distinct staff bias against any suggestion of the existing system being unfair to certain communities, particularly Thames. In the absence of papers on which these discussions are based, we can only assume that they reflect this bias.

Our new councilors will no doubt enter back into open council with their opinions well and truly formed by the manner in these 'closed door workshops' have been conducted. One councilor was heard to remark at the recent TCB meeting that she thought 'that the waste-water issue had been dropped from the Council Action List'. That conclusion could only have been drawn from information discussed or decided on within a 'closed door workshop' on the matter.

The waste-water issue is on the Council Action List as the result of the decision taken on 30 June 2010 that requires the Chief Executive to produce a report, the requirements for which I will detail shortly.  This report was supposed to be provided by the October meeting, then November, then December, then February and now April. It has been delayed on each occasion "because of the need for the Chief Executive to brief councillors''.

This deplorable state of affairs will hopefully come to a head in April (well, maybe), and those of us who are interested will have exactly two days, if that, to see what the new councilors have been told, before a decision is taken on 13 April, which if I am not mistaken will consign reform of our iniquitous waste-water charging regime to the scrap heap.

Councilors must understand that this issue will not simply go away because they may have allowed  themselves to be suborned in this manner. It will return over and over, until resolved fairly.




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