Gag on dam discussions called bureaucratic farce
HAWKE'S BAY REPORTER
A council's decision to keep public submissions on a controversial dam secret for two weeks has been labelled farcical by a local government expert, who says it smacks of "Yes, Minister bureaucratic nonsense".
Massey University senior lecturer in local government Andy Asquith says he struggled to see any logic in Hawke's Bay Regional Council's decision to keep submissions on a proposed $230 million dam secret.
At least $80m of ratepayer funds would go towards the project if it goes ahead.
The council asked the public for submissions on the dam over a six-week period ending on October 15, having extended the deadline by 10 days due to public pressure.
It received 161 submissions but refused to make them public until Monday, out of "respect" to submitters and "to allow councillors to give genuine consideration to all the comments without any external pressure".
Councillors had received all submissions by Tuesday.
Council spokeswoman Helen Shea said the submissions were withheld in accordance with standing orders endorsed by councillors after each election.
Several of the council's nine councillors have told The Dominion Post it was a staff decision to keep the submissions secret, and they were not consulted on the matter.
One councillor, Tim Gilbertson, said "the decision wasn't brought to council and it was clearly a serious error of judgment. We as councillors have to accept that".
Mr Asquith said the council's decision might be legal, but it was not in the spirit of open democracy, and the rationale used by the council was "farcical".
"Bureaucratic capture is the technical jargon we would use for this sort of thing. If you make a submission on something like this, it is not done in confidence or confidential.
"It makes a mockery of the ‘respect' point if they're going to be released on Monday. It's a nonsense. This really does smack of Yes, Minister bureaucratic nonsense that is not helpful for anyone.
"I have been around for a while and I've met few councillors over the years who would be able to take on Sir Humphrey Appleby [from Yes, Minister]," he said.
Local government legal expert Michael Garbett from Anderson Lloyd said: "Ordinarily submissions received by council are public information," and legislation required them to be released when requested, unless there was a specific reason for their being withheld.
"Under the legislation it can be possible to withhold submissions if they will soon be publicly available. This ground could reasonably apply here.
"The reason actually given by the council to avoid unfairness to a councillor from being queried on submissions is not a normal reason under the legislation to withhold submissions."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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