'Security reasons' behind Rotorua public meeting footage gaps

1:49 pm on 8 April 2020

Rotorua Lakes Council has admitted editing the public record of a public meeting.

Rotorua Lakes Council

Rotorua Lakes Council Photo: Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post via LDR

The Rotorua Daily Post last week reported gaps in the footage of the council's extraordinary meeting on 25 March.

In that report, council corporate planning and governance manager Oonagh Hopkins said the council had not edited "public matters or discussions relating to the public matters".

In another extraordinary meeting on Friday last week via video conferencing app Zoom, Ms Hopkins said the elements were taken out of the public record of the previous meeting as "confidential items" had been discussed.

She was responding to a question from councillor Reynold Macpherson, who asked if the video record of the Friday meeting would be edited.

Ms Hopkins said the video would not be edited and wanted to clarify why the last one had been.

"The reason there were a couple of elements taken out of the last council meeting was that a number of issues were raised, which were recorded, which were actually confidential items and you all discussed those in what was considered a public arena.

"They were removed for security reasons and to allow the full announcements to be made. Those were the reasons for that there.

"So long as we keep to our standing orders and discuss public items in a public forum and leave confidential matters to the confidential section then there will be no need to do any editing of this public part of the meeting."

Taxpayers' Union director Jordan Williams said in his opinion the council, as an organisation, had displayed "arrogance" in deciding what could be made public and what shouldn't be.

"The law is clear that the decision for a council meeting to go into public-excluded is solely one for the councillors, and must be made during the public part of a meeting. That didn't happen here."

The council would "never have got away with this" if people had been sitting in the public gallery.

"So it is a shock that they are trying to at a time of emergency. The council needs to put up the un-doctored version of the video without further delay."

Victoria University of Wellington associate professor and public law specialist Dean Knight said the video on 25 March had "no special legal status".

He said that changed on 26 March when Parliament changed the law, so if the same approach had been taken the next day, editing the video when the council had not gone into public-excluded could have been "problematic".

If people were concerned about it, however, it would be a matter for the Office of the Ombudsman to decide whether it was a case of maladministration or unfairness, Mr Knight said, but he didn't think there would be much concern.

"I think that's forgivable in the heightened circumstances of crisis and lockdown.

"It was probably a whoopsie of the public-exclusion motion wasn't put because practically ... there was no public there.

"I don't think then anybody would say, all the confidential details should then flow out.

"I wouldn't quibble too much with it, and I don't think the Ombudsman would have either. Even though ... if it happened on the Wednesday, it would have been, strictly speaking, illegal."

The council was asked if the editing of the video was lawful and ethical, and whether ratepayers and residents could have confidence in the transparency, accessibility and accountability of the council.

Also asked were the specific reasons for editing the video and why the council did not say the video was edited when asked last week.

The council was also invited to respond directly to comments from the Taxpayers' Union.

Council chief executive Geoff Williams said the organisation was focused on supporting its community through "the most difficult situation it may face".

"The community is also focused on getting through this difficult and uncertain time and supporting one another."

"There will be times when things don't go as smoothly as we ideally would like, as was the case with the technical issues we experienced using this technology to conduct council meetings for the first time.

"To champion this as some sort of conspiracy of wrongdoing and build it up into something it fundamentally is not, is extremely disappointing and completely unnecessary, particularly at this time," he said.

"So it's incredibly disappointing that, meanwhile, local media is focussed on trying to find some sort of conspiracy that simply does not exist. Your treatment of this matter is, in my view, vexatious.''

Approached for comment, Mr Macpherson referred the Rotorua Daily Post to a social media post in which he said the transparency and public accountability of central government, ministries and agencies regarding their responses to Covid-19 provide working examples of what the public in general, and ratepayers in particular, expect of local government.

In the meeting on Friday, the council decided to support the principles and objectives set out in an economic recovery plan presented by strategy manager Jean Paul Gaston, titled "Build Back Better", with Mr Macpherson opposed and councillor Sandra Kai Fong abstaining.

Approached for comment on this article on Tuesday, mayor Steve Chadwick said her focus was on the recovery plan and "what we need to do to move Rotorua forward".

The council also voted to continue delegated powers to the chief executive, which had previously been approved while the council could not attain quorum via video link.

Since then, the government amended those rules so quorum could be achieved and decisions could continue to be made by councils.

What is 'public-excluded'?

Under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, the local authorities, such as district councils, must make meetings open to the public.

That, however, is limited by the power of a council to go into "public-excluded" in order to discuss confidential or sensitive matters.

In order to do so, the council must vote to go into a public-excluded session of its meeting.

In those cases, the council is required to give the general subject of each matter to be considered while the public is excluded and the reason for passing the resolution to go into public-excluded for that matter, as well as the grounds on which that resolution is based.

What were the law changes?

In its last sitting before the lockdown, Parliament passed the Covid-19 Response (Urgent Management Measures) Legislation Bill.

It amended a number of acts including the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act in response to Covid-19.

Amendments to that act included that while the Covid-19 epidemic notice was in place, meetings could be open to the public either by live-streaming or making an audio or video recording or a written summary of the business conducted available on the local authority's website as soon as practicable after the meeting, and free of charge.

The amendments were given royal assent - via the Governor General - on 26 March.

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