A Rotorua resident believes the district council could avoid "misinformation" spreading if it opened closed-door "forums" to the public.
A journalism and public relations academic says public exclusion from important discussion allows the public to "speculate" about councils' work and misinformation to take hold.
The council says forums are not decision-making meetings and says "anxiety" about the proposal to sell land for housing was caused by its "premature leaking".
Mayor Steve Chadwick says the information becomes public at formal meetings.
Anna Steele, an Ōwhata resident, said she received an anonymous letter last month regarding the council's proposal to sell land for housing, which she says included "unfounded claims".
The proposal had been discussed in a closed-door council "forum" in February, and was revealed in April when Local Democracy Reporting obtained documents from the confidential meeting of staff and elected members.
It included a suggestion elected members were told it was "pace versus local conversations" and the council "can't have both".
The documents showed Coulter Rd Reserve was one of 10 reserves identified for possible disposal to enable redevelopment into housing. In that document, it showed the whole reserve was being considered for development by Kāinga Ora – something that has changed since the council went public with the proposal.
The council has also since clarified Kāinga Ora developments on the reserve sites could be public or affordable – KiwiBuild – housing.
The anonymous letter sent to Ōwhata residents in April, which Steele provided to Local Democracy Reporting, claims Coulter Rd Reserve would be sold to Kāinga Ora for "emergency public housing".
It goes on to claim a geotechnical survey had been "observed" in April, "to further support the sale and development of our reserve without our consultation".
The letter claimed it would mean the "destruction" of the reserve, including the kōhanga reo, playground and tennis court, "development disruption to our daily lives", removal of homes to make way for road access, higher-density housing, and loss of gifted public land.
The council has since released more information about the proposal, which shows only part of Coulter Rd Reserve is being considered for Kāinga Ora housing, which could be public housing or affordable – KiwiBuild – housing.
No documents have suggested the site – or any of the 10 sites – would be used as emergency accommodation, nor specified it would be "high-density".
Documents have also not stated surrounding homes or schools would be removed, and the council has clarified that none of the sites are gifted reserves.
Steele said the letter included "unfounded claims" and she believed "secretive council processes" led to a "void of information" which was filled with "misinformation and fear".
Steele is a member of Evolve, which describes itself as an "advocacy group" with an aim to "champion progressive social and economic projects and policies" on its website.
Steele said the anonymous letter would lead to "unease and more hatred of people" who needed "aroha and safe homes".
She said, in her view, the proposal could have been "handled better" by the council holding forums in public, which would have helped residents "understand the process".
"The community needs to be part of the process ... that can't happen with all of the hui in secret."
She said, in her opinion, earlier consultation would have provided "transparency" about the proposal which would help stop the spread of misinformation and people "whipping up fear".
Steele said it would be a shame if fear of "poor people living next door" meant houses didn't get built.
Local man Justin Adams has previously spoken out about the council's closed-door forums.
On Wednesday, he said he believed councils discussing important issues in secret eroded the public's trust in the institution and its motives.
In his view: "It makes you more suspicious of what is happening and more likely to believe something untoward is happening than what the reality could be.
"Your faith in the system starts to reduce the more and more in-secret there is."
Kāpiti Coast District councillor Gwynn Compton has also been outspoken about closed-door council forums in his district and nationally.
Compton said closed-door forums "undermined trust in the institution of local government".
"You need to see the sausage being made."
He said discussions and deliberations that whittled down options were "part of democracy" and often resulted in only one option being presented in public.
Massey University communications research associate Dr Catherine Strong said there was "little reason" to keep local government discussions "secret" and in her view, closed-door meetings were "against the spirit" of transparency.
"Residents want to know how a decision is made, not just what the decision is when it is announced dryly at an open meeting."
She said the public was left to "speculate" about important decisions, often on social media where misinformation may go unchecked.
In her opinion: "That is councils' fault for not being open."
Rotorua Lakes Council district leadership and democracy deputy chief executive Oonagh Hopkins said the "premature leaking of misinformation" created "anxiety".
The council has previously been given the opportunity to dispute any of the information in the original documents provided to Local Democracy Reporting, which revealed the proposal.
The council did not explicitly confirm, clarify nor deny any of the information in the documents but noted proposals often changed between workshops and final proposals.
On Wednesday Hopkins said some of the information in the anonymous letter was "disappointing" but the council couldn't stop people from creating and sharing "misinformation".
She said forums were "part of due diligence" before "finalising and presenting" formal proposals for decision making and or consultation "to ensure it is a viable proposal".
Asked how the council decided if a forum was to be confidential or not, Hopkins said the council decided it at the beginning of each term.
"Forums have been agreed to by the council as the most productive way to do this, providing opportunities to traverse a range of topics freely which then provides the frameworks for staff and future conversations with the community.
"In no way are these decision-making forums."
She said there would be multiple opportunities for public feedback on the proposal if the council approved it for consultation on May 26.
A council spokeswoman said there were crime issues due to Coulter Rd Reserve's "poorly designed open space" and reports of vandalism from the kōhanga reo on the reserve and "ongoing antisocial behaviour".
She said the kōhanga reo that leases part of the reserve – and is not proposed for disposal – was supportive of the proposal "in principle".
She said the reserve's playground was "nearing the end of its life", the tennis court "redundant" and new housing on the reserve would "improve passive surveillance, safety and use" of the reserve.
Its sale would "enable investment" into park facilities.
"There will be no removal of surrounding homes, and the reserves that have been identified in this proposal are not gifted land."
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said she encouraged residents to seek "accurate and up to date" information on the council website.
"Discussions around this proposal have taken place in an open committee meeting and will continue at our open council meeting next week. Decisions will be made in public and residents are welcome to attend these meetings to hear the debate and learn about the process.
"Workshops and forums enable elected members to gain in-depth understanding about various issues and challenges."
She said what emerged from the sessions became public via formal meetings where decisions were made "following further discussion and debate".
Local Democracy Reporting is public interest journalism funded by NZ On Air.