Public may not be allowed at forums

By Sadie Beckman

Transparency concerns have again been raised at the latest meeting of the Horowhenua District Council.

Two new community forums were discussed at the meeting, however documents prepared by council officers outlining their set-up and protocols excluded members of the public and media from attending them.

The Environmental and Economic community forums will be made up of people who apply through a selection process and who meet certain criteria, as well as appointed "liaison councillors".

For the Economic forum these would be deputy mayor Wayne Bishop and councillor Bernie Wanden, and for the Environmental forum, councillors Christine Mitchell and Neville Gimblett.

HDC customer and community services group manager Monique Davidson said advertising would be put out to invite expressions of interest, but council would also "utilise what I'd call existing networks" to decide who would be on the forums.

The documents state that minutes will be taken at the forum workshops but not published, and media releases would be vetted by council communications staff.

Several councillors expressed concern at public exclusion, with mayor Michael Feyen pushing for both public and media to be allowed at the workshops.

Ms Davidson said the workshops were not proposed to be open to the public "to protect the individuals' interests".

She said the terms of reference reflected the "direction given by mayor Feyen," and that as council officers, they would "obviously take guidance from council".

Mr Feyen said that was not his recollection, and his understanding was that the community could sit and listen at the forums, which he would prefer.

He also said he would support the media attending, because "I think we're going to hear some really good dialogue in these meetings".

Councillor Ross Brannigan proposed more work could be done around the forum structure documents, but Mr Feyen said council just needed to "get things going" on it.

"What does it matter if we have a few members of the public sitting around having a listen in on things?" he said.

"What does it matter if we have the media there? To me it's simple."

However, councillor Christine Mitchell said she was "uneasy" about a media presence.

"The media tends to pick up on the sensational type of stuff which could affect a balanced view," she said.

Councillor Piri-Hira Tukupua agreed, while councillor Jo Mason did not.

"I think that the more open it is the better," she said.

Feyen said the independent facilitators and councillors on the forums could address any potential problems.

He said having the media there was actually the "perfect opportunity to have what I see as a changing media in this area, where we're actually getting more of a balance of information, articles [and] editorials".

"Nobody should be really worried about what they've got to say ... we're representing the whole of the district. We're not a trust, we're not something else in a smaller organisation that might not allow that.

I want to see transparency really, actually applied, and I think this is our perfect opportunity."

HDC chief executive David Clapperton said that as a consequence of the discussions, independent forum facilitators would have discretion to allow members of the public and media to attend forums.

Council voted to adopt the terms of reference document, with these additions.

- Horowhenua Chronicle

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