This newspaper takes its role of keeping our elected officials accountable very seriously.
We have been consistent in our calls for transparency in our councils and, judging by the feedback we get, there is much support for our position. It is quite simple, really - councillors were elected by voters and therefore the public has the right to know what they discuss.
At present there is a lot of debate about whether or not Hawke's Bay regional councillors should be required to make their email correspondence public. The Ombudsman, Leo Donnelly, is investigating some complaints that were made to him after regional councillors refused to release email correspondence upon request.
The first was a Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) request by former CHB mayor Peter Butler to regional councillor Tom Belford, asking the councillor for all correspondence he had with third parties, including Hawke's Bay Today, about the Ruataniwha dam between August 8 and 25 last year. Mr Belford refused, so Mr Butler complained to the Ombudsman.
Our reporter, Victoria White, also made an OIA request for correspondence between six anti-dam councillors on a number of issues relating to the dam. This request was also declined. We complained to the Ombudsman, who has yet to rule on both complaints.
I recently met Mr Donnelly, who asked me how I felt about my emails with Mr Belford being made public and also my views on the whole issue. I told him I had no problem with the correspondence being made public because Mr Belford was not providing me with information as a source of mine, but was writing a letter of complaint.
In a letter on this page, Mr Belford wrongly suggests that anyone wanting to come to me with private information better beware because I may decide to make it public. Mr Belford should know better than to even suggest this.
I want to be very clear about one thing - I would never reveal the identity of a source if they have come to me in confidence. Most journalists would be prepared to go to jail rather than reveal a source and I am no different.
However, a councillor and candidate for re-election complaining about something is entirely different.
The two Official Information Act requests that I have mentioned above are also quite different. Mr Butler's is for correspondence between Mr Belford and third parties, while Hawke's Bay Today's request is for correspondence between councillors.
Some emails in the first request may be from people who don't want their information made public but it is up to the Ombudsman to decide which of those emails can be released. Whatever he decides, Mr Belford needs to abide by that.
In the case of Mr Belford's correspondence with me, the Ombudsman decided that Mr Belford was writing in his capacity as a candidate for election to the council and not a councillor, so therefore he would not rule that they needed to be made public. While I accept the Ombudsman's decision, I do believe that it is a grey area.
Another point is that, while we firmly believe the public has the right to know what councillors discuss, as a newspaper we are also bound by our own journalistic code of ethics and the principles of the NZ Press Council. We would not publish anything that violates those principles.
In another letter on this page, first-term regional councillor Paul Bailey says he disagrees with me on the issue of information disclosure. He says Sec 7(2)(f)(i) of the LGOIMA is "quite clear".
He then goes on to quote part of it - "withholding is necessary to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinions by, between or to members, officers or employees of a local authority in the course of their duty".
Unfortunately Mr Bailey has been selective in his quoting of the Act. The principle of Section 7 (1) is even clearer.
"Where this section applies, good reason for withholding official information exists, for the purpose of section 5, unless, in the circumstances of the particular case, the withholding of that information is outweighed by other considerations which render it desirable, in the public interest, to make that information available."
There is no doubt the Ruataniwha dam is in the public interest. It is public money being spent and if councillors are emailing each other before meetings to decide on a strategy then the public should have the right to know that.
It is now in the hands of the Ombudsman and if he decides that the councillors need to make public any email correspondence, let's just hope for the sake of transparency they comply.