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The Ombudsman, the council, and transparency

by Ian Apperley
A long running issue with the Wellington City Council’s lack of transparency has been highlighted this week by two rulings from the Ombudsman.

The rulings state that the Council failed to meet its obligations as required by the Official Information Act, in terms of responding to two questions from the DominionPost.

One of the greatest criticisms of the WCC over the last three terms has been its reluctance and obfuscation in response to certain official information requests. That attitude, in my opinion, is not endemic but is driven from the senior leadership. Sure, that’s a bold opinion, but I can give examples of where the Council has failed to meet its obligations.

As I have written before, the heart of any democracy is the transparent and free-flow of information to citizens. Without that information flow, citizens do not have enough information to make decisions and provide feedback to their employees, the Councillors and Officers of Council. Stifling information kills the democratic process.

This week’s Dominion Post report highlights two official requests that were not answered. Both were in the public interest, and, no doubt, were embarrassing for the WCC. One of the unanswered questions was about the development of Shelly Bay. The second sought information about how much ratepayers had contributed to the dismal failure that was the Rugby Sevens.

Ombudsman Leo Donnelly told Wellington City Council to review the way it responded to requests for information made under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA), and to remind its staff of their obligations….Donnelly ruled the council’s refusal [to answer a question lodged on January 6] was a failure to meet the requirements of the request.

Another request for information … was submitted on January 18. The Ombudsman found the council failed under the act and said he had reminded the council that timeliness, and compliance … were “fundamental” obligations.

The mayor distanced himself from the failures:

“I’d expect our council to follow its statutory obligations and ensure that we are being transparent and open to the public.”

Which is a bit rich coming from an elected official who has been aware of this issue for some years, particularly in his role as Deputy Mayor.

After some of my dealings with the WCC I have also complained on a number of occasions to the Ombudsman. With some success. For the record, here is the list of requests I have made to the WCC (and the Regional Council), of which I want to highlight one topic.

I was particularly interested in the City Council’s drive toward sharing technology services between other local Councils, the cost, and what it meant for residents. The questions that I asked brought an angry reaction from the Council that was trite at best and in my opinion potentially misleading at worst.

The sharing idea was simple. Councils in the Wellington region were encouraged to share their technology services in order to save money. The problem was, it wasn’t going to work.

I asked for the release of the business case that supported that work and was blocked until the Ombudsman intervened. Finally, when the business case was due to be released there was this extraordinary email from the CEO of the Regional Council.

He writes to the CE of the City Council to tell him that the situation is not represented accurately, was never agreed with them, and does not line up with the last business case. Worse, the email goes on to point out that the GWRC does not believe that the financial situation is accurate, being “overstated”, and that if the contents are made public, the GWRC will “move to defend its position and decision making.”

A source had advised me the exact question to ask in this case. Something for which I am grateful. It resulted in proof of how the WCC was trying to manage information requests about its performance, strategy, and decision making.

But the Council can’t be punished for, basically, breaking the law.

Kane Patena, the council’s governance and assurance director, said it had taken the Ombudsman’s findings on board and was reviewing its approach to responding to official information requests. This included an examination of whether it had sufficient capacity to deal with its workload. The council tried hard to meet obligations under the LGOIMA, and he believed it was as transparent as it could be, he said.

What a weak response. It implies that the Council does not have enough resources to answer information requests, rather than taking responsibility for the fact that it has been awful at public transparency and consultation. If this is “as transparent as it could be” then we are in a world of trouble.

The WCC seems to be less motivated by the need for democratic easement and more interested in protecting its own interests while saving face. The Ombudsman’s rulings show that it is time for the WCC to commit to real transparency.

1 comment:

  1. laidbackchap, 19. May 2017, 10:28

    Maybe just maybe it’s not deliberate, maybe it’s just because they have no information – as we all know the paperwork for Singapore Airlines was a rough calculation on the back of a napkin.

     

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