I can't help thinking there must be something in the water Whanganui District councillors are drinking, as the last few meetings have had a strange undercurrent of angst, discontent and confusion.

On February 7, at a council committee meeting, councillors voted to approve the Airport Rd location for a new dog pound facility, but then immediately voted against providing the funds to build it.

This was apparently an act of protest over the stated cost, but it certainly had council staff perplexed.

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Then, at the next full council meeting, pretty much all the same councillors who voted against the funding flip-flopped and voted to provide the necessary funds.

Then, at this week's council meeting on Tuesday, councillors met to vote on the structure of the Whanganui District Council Holdings Ltd board, and councillor Rob Vinsen immediately tabled a motion to limit board member payments to an amount councillors had voted for in September 2017, but had then superseded by endorsing a document on October 3 which gave a much higher remuneration for Holdings board members.
Then came the biggest flip-flop with one councillor, after arguing profusely against Mr Vinsen's motion, voting for it.

The motion was passed, making it difficult, if not impossible, to pay the board payment structure previously agreed to.

Mr Vinsen explained that Holdings board members remuneration had been discussed under confidentiality at a previous meeting, and he — and other councillors — believed this should never have been allowed to happen because there was no reason for it to be confidential.

That confirmed what has been a real concern I have held for some time — the council has been using confidentiality unnecessarily, and that is a concern for our democracy.

The Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act lists numerous reasons for confidentiality — for example, the meeting would be likely to result in the disclosure of information for which good reason for withholding exists; or to protect the privacy of natural persons.

Unfortunately, confidentiality lacks transparency and discourages participation of local communities in local government. It also fails to ensure the accountability of council.

No doubt there are often genuine reasons for confidentiality, but the trouble is ... when you don't know what it is you aren't allowed to know, it's impossible to know if there is a good reason for it in the first place. We simply have no option but to trust the people we elected.

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In November 2012, South Australian Ombudsman Richard Bingham, after complaints to his office, conducted and released an audit report on 12 councils in South Australia.

He said: "Some councils are not adhering to the spirit and the letter of the meeting confidentiality provisions in the act." He also found evidence of invalid orders being made to keep documents confidential and that a common substandard practice and a lack of understanding about public interest considerations existed.

In addition, he found the "special circumstances" in the Australian act were being misinterpreted by some councils as a shield to protect them from "pressure from the public" when debating sensitive topics.

Shockingly, the Ombudsman found there were no valid grounds for councils to exclude the public from meetings in 45 out of the 80 agenda items examined for his audit.

I suspect an audit of New Zealand councils would produce similar results, and suggest the Whanganui council needs to take a good long hard look at the items it considers needing confidentiality. Perhaps they should run them past independent legal counsel to check that confidentiality is absolutely necessary.

Steve Baron
Steve Baron

Steve Baron is a Whanganui-based political commentator, author and founder of Better Democracy NZ. He holds degrees in economics and political science.