Critics of a Rotorua Lakes Council move to not include formal hearings as part of its long-term plan consultation process say it impacts some people's abilities to participate in decision-making.
On Monday last week the council confirmed its 2021-2031 Long-term Plan consultation strategy would not include formal hearings.
The council says it provided a variety of ways for the community to provide feedback, including seven two-hour face-to-face feedback sessions with elected members, while formal hearings often limited speaking time to five minutes.
Victoria University of Wellington associate professor of law Dean Knight said the approach the council took was not against the law but it was "unusual".
"I commend [the council] for thinking carefully about how they can better capture community voices ... but I'd also just say there's also part of their community that would probably be better served still by having those traditional, formal hearings.
"Why not have both?"
He believed it would be wise to also maintain hearings "as a backstop" for those who wanted to present their views in a formal, "eyeball-to-eyeball" session.
Knight said formal meetings also brought "sunlight to deliberations".
"Reporters watch and report, interested people pop along. That sort of public discourse ... has a civilising effect on what happens as well, it ensures things are done properly because [it has] a degree of formal transparency."
Local Government NZ president Stuart Crosby said some councils dispensed with hearings, usually with consultation surrounding annual plans when a draft annual plan didn't deviate from the long-term plan.
"For a long-term plan, most councils do hold hearings."
He said that was because a long-term plan set the scene for at least the next three years and because hearings created a public record of feedback through a minuted, formal meeting.
A former mayor of Tauranga, Crosby said informal meetings had value as well as they could be a less intimidating environment for some.
In his personal view, there should "always" be an opportunity for both informal and formal verbal feedback for accountability and record-keeping.
Disabled Persons Assembly chief executive Prudence Walker said making full detailed written submissions could be difficult for some disabled people, so the option to make an oral submission to expand or clarify on their written submission was "essential".
She said if the informal sessions were not fully accessible, or if people could not raise issues they wanted to speak to, then disabled people's participation "will be impacted".
Accessibility of those sessions included having a sign language interpreter, live-captioning and the accessibility of the venue.
Council corporate planning and governance manager Oonagh Hopkins said the council had investigated "more inclusive ways to run consultations" to encourage more people to have their say.
"This need was driven by feedback from those who had previously participated in hearings, and from best practice engagement methodologies within the public participation sector.
"The goal of a consultation and engagement process is to provide as many opportunities as possible for people to provide feedback in a way that best suits them."
That included face-to-face, online, surveys, written submissions or over the phone feedback.
"Traditional hearings ... are often limited to, and bound by, a committee of council and the standing orders. This means submitters only get five minutes to speak to elected members in a formal setting."
She said the seven two-hour face-to-face feedback sessions "where people had the opportunity to participate and provide their views in multiple conversations with many elected members".
That feedback was captured and provided to elected members to inform their decision-making on the final plan, she said.
"Events such as these, where people can provide their views direct to elected members, have proved to be more informative, more inclusive and provide people with greater accessibility to elected members in which to share and present their views."
Elected members had informed council staff about how they wished to engage with the community and that did not include hearings, she said.
Deputy mayor Dave Donaldson said he had sat through many hearings and was confident that "much greater and far more effective dialogue" was achieved in a community feedback setting.
"Relying solely on formal hearings is a lazy way of engaging with your community."
He said the informal and conversational style of engagement was the elected members' preferred approach.
"We get much more insight into the perspective of the community as a whole, rather than from just those who are confident to speak in a formal hearing setting."
He didn't believe anything was lost by not holding formal hearings.
"Whatever form feedback was provided in, it will all be considered by elected members in our decision-making process."
A Local Government NZ spokesman said councils endeavoured to improve engagement and consultation, particularly around long-term plans.
"More councils are going to where the people are.
"There is a legislative requirement in the Local Government Act for people to be able to speak to their submission, so naturally councils seek to fulfil this, and improve on it."
All councils held meetings where the public could speak to their submissions but those varied "according to the unique requirements of the community", the spokesman said.
"Verbal submissions are important as they enable submitters to explain details of their submission, and it also allows council representatives to ask questions of the submission."
The Western Bay of Plenty held informal community feedback sessions for its 2021-2031 Long-term Plan, as well as formal hearings, where 35 groups spoke to their written submissions.
Tauranga City Council's 2021-2031 Long-term Plan consultation document laid out eight informal face-to-face feedback opportunities, as well as hearings set to begin on June 14.
Bay of Plenty Regional Council held hearings over five days and three locations in April ahead of deliberations last week.