Western Bay of Plenty District Council closed all its workshops to the public from July 1 to November 20, 2023. Councillor Rodney Joyce criticized the practice and called it “hard to crack.” The council has started putting workshop minutes into meeting agendas for public viewing, but still needs to address some detailed matters in private. Chief ombudsman Peter Boshier reprimanded councils for default closing workshops, calling them “unreasonable.”
The council held 18 closed workshops between July and November 2023, and another 25 from July 2022 to June 2023. Council governance manager Greer Golding stated that no workshops were held in public, and no minutes or notes from workshops have been made public. The council plans to include workshop notes in future committee agendas, but all councillors have agreed to the ‘no decisions to be made in workshops’ rule.
The council is considering a review of its decision-making process, which includes workshops and meetings. The council believes that workshops should be used to involve the public in the process, but a balance between transparency and time for councillors to address difficult issues is needed. Mayor James Denyer believes that the review is wide-ranging and has cost implications if all recommendations are adopted. Some issues may require more staff, and some may be commercially sensitive or involve privacy.
Denyer also suggests that elected members could behave differently when observed publicly, as they may receive more speeches and less free-flowing discussions. Councillor Don Thwaites believes that more open-ended discussions could help everyone understand the matter. He suggests that long-term and annual plan workshops could be held in the open, similar to Tauranga City Council’s approach, to bring people up to date on the pressures that exist. The council is open to moving towards more open and transparent decision-making, but the exact direction and what is being asked for is unclear at the moment.