The Hastings District Council is today expected to release information, including details of how councillors voted, from a publicly excluded meeting where a $50,000 ratepayer-funded incentive scheme was awarded to Hawke's Bay's largest water exporter.
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.
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."
He said the release of minutes in these circumstances was problematic as "councillors would have said things and raised points behind closed doors in the expectation that they would remain because closed doors."
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.
"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'," he said.
Mr Yule said grants were decided on in publicly excluded sessions as some aspects 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."
Labour's Tukituki candidate Anna Lorck says she respects commercial sensitivity to a point, after which it became unnecessary.
"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.
When asked why grant recipients were not made public, Mr Yule said there was no real reason. "I just don't think anybody's asked the question or thought to make them public," he said.
Mr Austin said Hawke's Bay Today would call for all councils after the local government elections to do away with the public excluded portion of council meetings.