3 Feb 2021

Despite improvements, Invercargill City Council fails on obligations, ombudsman says

5:08 pm on 3 February 2021

Invercargill City Council has seen improvements since a new chief executive took over two years ago, but there's still work to do, chief ombudsman Peter Boshier says.

Clock tower at Invercargill, New Zealand

Invercargill (file image). Photo: 123RF

Boshier's comments came in a report, released today, which assessed how well the city council (ICC) was meeting its obligations under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act - which governs what information can be kept from the public.

The council has been under siege as internal standoffs between elected members and staff spilled into the public.

An independent review into growing problems at ICC, released in November, found Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt had been increasingly unable to fulfil his duties.

That review was sparked by concerns raised by the Department of Internal Affairs, and the ICC appointed two external appointees to address the issues it raised.

Today's report by Boshier into practices at ICC was one of four such reviews, alongside others looking into Buller District Council and Tauranga, and Porirua City Councils.

"This latest batch of investigations confirms that in councils of every size and type, strong and positive leadership is the most important element in establishing a culture of openness and backing that up with the right tools and training," Boshier said.

There was an increasing culture of openness and transparency at ICC since Hadley joined in 2018, he said.

"I am encouraged to find that overall, the council has an increasing culture of openness driven by dedicated leaders. However, there is still work to do. I found no evidence of explicit messaging from senior leaders to staff about the importance of LGOIMA in particular, as distinct from messaging about openness and transparency more generally," Boshier's report said.

Boshier made six recommendations and suggested 34 actions to improve ICC's official information practices - all of which were accepted.

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Chief ombudsman Peter Boshier. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

"A significant culture shift has been initiated at Invercargill City Council, and this is an opportunity to build on that and increase the council's LGOIMA capability," Boshier said.

"I'm confident that the chief executive is committed to building capability and implementing my recommendations to effect positive change."

He was concerned by the lack of official information policy, procedures, or guidance on the council's obligations under the Act and a minimal training provided to staff.

Overall, the council had unreasonably failed to implement effective official information practice, he said.

"Overall, my opinion is that the council has unreasonably failed to implement an effective official information practice.

"In addition, I have also identified occasions where the council failed to inform a requester of the reasons for refusing a LGOIMA request and failed to inform requesters of their right to complain to the Ombudsman when LGOIMA requests had been refused. It is my opinion this

was contrary to law."

Boshier's recommendations:

  • Create an official information request webpage and incorporate a link on the council website home page that goes directly to this webpage;
  • develop an official information training programme which includes more comprehensive induction training, as well as training for all current staff, refresher courses and targeted training for specific roles
  • Develop a written policy and procedures on official information requests
  • Develop guidance resources for staff on how to apply LGOIMA to information requests;
  • establish a formalised peer review process

  • Ensure all LGOIMA responses, which contain a full or partial refusal, include the reason for withholding information and a reference to the requester's right to complain to the Ombudsman

In response, ICC said the report contained several positive and encouraging comments, along with the recommendations which were "important ... to act upon".

ICC chief executive Clare Hadley said she was pleased to see acknowledgement of the commitment the council had made to develop a culture of openness.

"We all know we can do more, especially in the areas Mr Boshier has commented on and particularly the need for better public information sharing and two-way communication. We accept his comments and endorse his recommended actions," she said.

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