Lawyer hammers council on secrecy
A self-appointed city council watchdog has urged councillors to challenge the amount of business the council carries out in private.
Nelson lawyer Ken Beckett, who has become a regular visitor to the Nelson City Council's public forums, appeared at yesterday's governance committee meeting to convey his concern at the amount of council business conducted in "public excluded" sessions.
"I have cast my eye over all the agendas coming before the council, and I'm of the firm view that this council conducts too much business in secret," Mr Beckett said. Yesterday's agenda included several items to be discussed in private, including information regarding the opportunity for Nelson to be a host city for the 2015 Cricket World Cup.
The Nelson Mail reported in September that Nelson planned to declare it wanted to be a host city for the event. The council agreed then to forward an expression of interest to the organising authority.
Nelson Mayor Aldo Miccio passed a resolution yesterday allowing Nelson Regional Economic Development Agency chief executive Bill Findlater and business development manager Melissa Hutcheson to remain in the meeting, on the grounds that they had information that was useful to the council.
Mr Miccio explained that the EDA had information on the likely economic impact to the region from hosting the event. The public were excluded from hearing the presentation.
Mr Findlater said outside the meeting he was not allowed to comment. He had been advised by the committee that the matter was confidential and he could not discuss it.
Mr Beckett said the Local Government Official Information Act was "quite straightforward" in what it said about council meetings, in that they had to be held in public unless there was good reason for them not to be.
"The approach should be taken that councillors should be asking why they need to deal with these things in secrecy, then look to see if there's a straightforward reason.
"I appreciate you get recommendations from staff that a subject should be in confidential, but they are just that - recommendations - and the decision lies with councillors as to whether to accept them," Mr Beckett said, explaining that a simple example of statutory grounds for excluding the public was communication between a solicitor and a client which was subject to legal privilege.
He said legal advice to councillors might be that an item should be heard in private, but they should look at the subject matter and decide. "In some cases it will need to be, but in other cases there is no need whatsoever."
The same applied to council workshops, he said, many of which were conducted in private.
He suggested it was wrong to accept that they could be held with the public excluded, on the grounds that no decisions were made at the informal level of a workshop.
Mr Miccio said all workshops that led to preparing the last annual plan were open to the public, but no one from outside the council attended.
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