Behind the big, round table which dominates the Canterbury District Health Board boardroom, is a row of chairs - the public seats.

Aside from journalists or CDHB staff, they almost always sit empty.

It is little wonder they do.

There is usually very little to watch.

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Last year, the health board had 11 scheduled board meetings, many lasting for most of the day.

But throughout that time, only six decisions were debated and decided in the public section of the meetings - and most of those were little more than rubber-stamping.

The important issues were saved until the closed section of the meeting, after the public are asked to leave, the media file out and the big doors to the board room swing shut.

Then the real debate began.

In the past year the board has agonised over the health board's finances and where budgets should be boosted or cut, battled with the Ministry of Health over funding, and decided how to respond to November's North Canterbury Earthquake - all behind closed doors.

In the December meeting alone, there were 14 things to discuss in the public excluded section of the meeting.

They ranged from a business case for Canterbury's mental health services, to a proposal for the hospital Park and Ride service.

District health board member Jo Kane (left) said she believed far too much was being discussed behind closed doors.

She was particularly concerned about the financial issues, as the health board faces a $38.5 million budget deficit this year, as well as issues like mental health.

"I think our community has no understanding of the precipice we are standing on," she said.

"I often sit there in public excluded meetings saying why aren't we talking about this openly."

But fellow board member Aaron Keown disagreed that more open meetings were needed.

He did not believe the public cared if an issue was discussed in an open meeting, because people rarely went any way.

"There's not a whole lot of interest. You're lucky to get a visitor every three years. You don't get the same amount of contact with the public the council does, and you don't get complaints from the public about things in public excluded,' he said.

Murray Cleverley. Photo / Christchurch Star
Murray Cleverley. Photo / Christchurch Star

The decision over whether to discuss a topic in the open meeting or public excluded session is made by board chairman Murray Cleverley and chief executive David Meates.

Mr Cleverley spoke to The Star about the issue before he stepped down from his role with the board last week, while conflict of interest allegations were investigated by the State Services Commission.

Mr Cleverley and two other people are accused of negotiating property deals through their own private company in 2014, while they were employed by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority to bring public investment into the city.

Speaking to The Star in January, Mr Cleverley said the health board had a responsibility to be transparent with the community, and they took that seriously.

He said the number of things discussed public excluded had stayed about the same during his time as chairman.

But he said he would re-look at the policy, to see if anything more could be discussed publicly.

"I think it's about right, but I will never say we can't do better. We can always do better in anything we do, so we are always looking at ways we can improve," he said.

He said most of the things discussed in private at the last meeting were because of commercial sensitivity or contracts. Some, like a health and safety report, were to protect people's privacy, he said.

In contrast, Wellington's Capital and Coast District Health Board also had a health and safety report to discuss at its last meeting, but did it in the public section.

Mr Cleverley said he could not compare the cases, but Canterbury's was kept public-excluded to protect the privacy of staff.

"You may even be using people's names and examples and things like that, and you couldn't be doing that in an open session of course, because that would be unfair on those individuals or areas you are talking about."

A spokesperson for Wellington's CCDHB said it had not faced any privacy issues while discussing its health and safety reports in public meetings, but if health and safety issues arose which related to specific staff members it would discuss those behind closed doors.

Mr Cleverley also said things were sometimes kept public excluded because they would be contentious.

"When there's contentious issues which need to be thrashed out it's really important to be able to do that in a full and frank conversation with all the board members, so they can get all their opinions and debates happening free and frankly," he said.

He was referring to a section of the Official Information Act, which says protecting "the free and frank expression of opinions" can legally be used as a reason to withhold documents from the public.

But that is not one of the reasons a meeting can be closed to the public.

Those fall under the NZ Public Health and Disability Act, which specifically says that clause about "free and frank" expression cannot be used as a reason to close meetings.

The Star put that to Mr Cleverley, but he did not respond.

The Office of the Ombudsman received one complaint last year about a district health board using "free and frank expression of opinion" as the reason a discussion was kept public excluded. But a spokeswoman said she could not reveal which health board was involved, because the complaint had not yet been resolved.

Victoria University law lecturer Dean Knight said it was the volume of things the CDHB was discussing behind closed doors that concerned him.

"The ethos is the public body has to try to draw the balance carefully, so I would be worried if they were routinely treating things as commercial sensitive, so much so that most things were discussed public excluded," he said.

While that may be legal, he said it went against the intent of the law, which was to give the community a voice in health board meetings and decisions.

He said the most important factor in engaging people was being open about decisions and the decision-making process.