Ashburton Council defends use of closed workshops for educating members

5:45 pm on 4 November 2023
Ashburton District Council chief executive Hamish Riach.

Ashburton's chief executive Hamish Riach believes his council rates well in terms of transparency in decision making. Photo: Supplied/ Local Democracy Reporting

Ashburton District Council operates with transparency, despite many workshops taking place behind doors closed to the public in the last financial year, its chief executive Hamish Riach says.

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. However Boshier found no evidence of decisions being made behind closed doors.

Ashburton District Council (ADC) was not included in the investigation, but Boshier's recommendations covered all regions.

Of 34 workshops held in the last financial year, ADC only opened eight to the public, which the council's boss said was for educational purposes.

The ombudsman said he did not consider "controversy, complexity, or the potential for embarrassment" to be valid reasons to exclude the public from council meetings. Nor the concern raised by some councillors and officials that "asking questions [in public] could make them look stupid".

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

Ashburton District Council 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."

During the 22/23 financial year there had been a higher number of closed workshops, Riach said.

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

Workshop topics included 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 holds six-weekly activity briefing workshops, "which show work across all council teams, and these are open to the public and media", Riach 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 Rotorua Lakes Council, Taranaki Regional Council, Taupō District Council, Palmerston North City Council, Rangitīkei District Council, Waimakariri District Council, Timaru District Council, and Clutha District Council.

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