Information from a publicly excluded meeting where $50,000 in ratepayer dollars was awarded to Hawke's Bay's largest water exporter is expected to be released by Hastings District Council today.
During a publicly excluded section of a council meeting on May 28, 2015, it was decided to award New Zealand Miracle Water an Economic Development Incentive Grant of $50,000.
As of this month, $12,500 had been paid to Miracle Water. The company could be eligible to receive the full amount if its jobs increased to 180.
In the interest of transparency, Hawke's Bay Today has twice requested the minutes of the publicly excluded meeting.
On Friday, Hawke's Bay Today editor Andrew Austin formally requested them from Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule.
"We've asked the council to release the minutes of that meeting because we believe it is important that ratepayers have a chance to see how the councillors who represent them voted on this issue," he said.
"Our readers have told us in no uncertain terms that they are unhappy about the secrecy surrounding this decision to spend ratepayers' money."
Mr Yule said that today he would be looking at what options were available to release the minutes.
"The decision to go into [publicly excluded] is made by vote of councillors, and I or any other councillor cannot release minutes without councillor agreement," he said.
"To my knowledge we have never been asked for publicly excluded minutes. As such I need expert advice and confirmation from councillors that they support such an approach."
Although the council was always transparent with information, and provided the Miracle Water decision when requested, Mr Yule said "the release of minutes is however slightly different because councillors would have said things and raised points behind closed doors in the expectation that they would remain because closed doors."
"This is allowed for under the Local Government Act and would be their expectation."
After Hawke's Bay Today reported on the grant last week, councillor Wayne Bradshaw also asked Mr Yule to disclose information on the meeting.
He was told this could not happen, even though in Mr Bradshaw's view all the information had been publicly disclosed through Hawke's Bay Today.
"Where do we stop, and start telling the public about how we spend their money," he said.
"We're [ratepayers] servants, they pay our bills. We can't just go, 'oh sorry we're not going to tell you about that, we want your money but we're not going to tell you that'."
Mr Yule said grants were decided on in publicly excluded sessions as when council reviewed business' applications, they considered things which could be commercially sensitive.
However, Mr Bradshaw said sometimes it appeared the easiest option was to exclude the public from decisions about spending ratepayer dollars.
"I think the council slips into a bad habit of taking this view of, 'we need to exclude people', because it's ratepayers' money," he said.
Mr Bradshaw, who voted against awarding the grant to Miracle Water in May 2015, said he was not the only councillor to do so.
"I have some discomfort about giving away our water when we don't understand the aquifer, and the value of it, and how nature has replenished it," he said. "I did not feel comfortable about it so I voted against it."
Labour's Tukituki candidate Anna Lorck has also weighed in, saying she respected commercial sensitivity to a point, after which it became unnecessary.
"After that the information should be open and transparent," she said. "Saying nothing is effectively keeping it from the public, unless it's brought to the public's attention how would people have ever known about it."
"If [council] had reported it there wouldn't be this perception of secrecy, and back room deals."
The Miracle Water grant was made through the council's Economic Development Financial Incentives Policy, which aims to support private business sector growth to increase employment and incomes.
Since it was established in 2014 with a pool of $200,000, companies NZ Frost Fans, HB Labour Governance Group and Rockit Apples have applied and been assisted by the policy.
Mr Yule said Kiwi Bank was also likely to be eligible.
When asked why grant recipients were not made public, he said there was no real reason. "I just don't think anybody's asked the question or thought to make them public," he said.
"They follow the process we set up, and the policy we set up which was fully done in public to make these grants part of our 1000 jobs in five years policy."