What is the city council hiding?

High-flying Wellington lawyer and lobbyist Mai Chen is helping the Christchurch City Council with its appointment of a new chief executive. When were we going to be told? And will we ever find out how much that might cost?

How many applicants have been received for the job? Will we ever know?

How badly has the council's new building been damaged by the earthquakes? Will we ever be informed?

Oh, and going back a bit, how willingly were we told how much the Ellerslie International Flower Show cost ratepayers? Well, that figure certainly took some extracting. And what is happening with the old Turners & Growers site . . . ?

So many questions and so few answers from a council that seems more often than not to operate in secret.

In what was hardly a surprising move, the city council excluded the public from its deliberations for another four hours last Friday. That followed other closed-door sessions on Thursday and Wednesday last week, and many hours in seclusion at its meetings earlier in June.

Sometimes, of course, there are good reasons to work confidentially, but, to be frank, this is a council that would go into public-excluded mode to decide what flavour muffins to have for lunch.

In more than 20 years as a journalist, a large part of that spent reporting on public bodies and councils including Environment Canterbury (ECan) and the Dunedin City Council, I have never come across a group so willing to slide into secrecy at the drop of a hat.

ECan's last democratically elected council was, for all its perceived faults and supposed dysfunctionality, a far more open and up-front body than this city council. From my recent viewings of the performance of the city council, it's hard to escape the conclusion it was very lucky not to get the "ECan treatment" from the Government following the earthquakes.

Bruised by criticism about the council's purchase of the Dave Henderson properties and its stubborn refusal to tell ratepayers how much it paid for Ellerslie, Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker promised ratepayers greater transparency in his second term if re-elected.

It has to be said there is precious little sign of that yet. Some of this council's workings are about as transparent as a pile of agenda papers.

Individually, the councillors are undoubtedly highly capable, committed and civic-minded people. But, collectively, they are too attracted to working without the scrutiny of the public and the media. And the trouble with operating in such secrecy is that it looks suspicious.

I don't want to believe this council is excluding the public because it has vast amounts of things it wants to hide. However, I do think public exclusion has become a convenient habit, a lazy way out that is easy to adopt when tricky issues arise.

Where are the debates before moving into closed session about why the public is being excluded? Elected representatives on other councils actually discuss and argue the need to make such a move. So why not our city councillors, too? They also need to be champions for openness and democracy, and only go behind closed doors in extraordinary circumstances.

Unfortunately, Local Government New Zealand says it does not keep track of how much time councils spend with the public excluded, so it is difficult to compare the Christchurch City Council's penchant for this with its contemporaries.

The Press will be keeping a close eye on the city council's openness to its ratepayers and for how many meeting hours it excludes them from its discussions.

My bet is, given current behaviour, it will be at least half the time.

The Press