The Law Commission, in its review of the country's official information legislation last year, noted an expression usually attributed to Francis Bacon: "Knowledge is power". It also said there is a clear acceptance today that access to information held by government is vital insofar as it enables better participation in the democratic process, helps to promote trust in government and, if necessary, enables government to be held to account.
The Local Government Official Information Amendment Act 1987 establishes a regime of openness in local government as the Official Information Act 1982 does for central government. The legislation does not define "information", the commission said, but it has been held that the concept is a wide one, befitting the purpose of the legislation. Information is not limited to paper documents and includes electronic and other formats.
The report had little to say about emails, but it did observe they can be problematic because they are usually addressed to an individual rather than an agency. Their management can be particularly difficult due in part to their volume, and in part to the fact that many contain personal as well as "official" matters.
But an email between two Hamilton city councillors about council affairs can't be considered personal, and "council affairs" extend to council-controlled organisations. The council determines the objectives of these bodies, monitors them and is accountable to ratepayers and residents for their performance. Councillors sitting on the CCO Committee serve as public watchdogs.
The committee's chairman, Cr Garry Mallett, wants to have one of his fellow watchdogs put down for barking inappropriately. He was instrumental last week in having the committee vote 4-1 to remove Cr Ewan Wilson for alleged breaches of confidence by sharing emails between the two men with the Waikato Times. Cr Mallett's complaint, essentially, is that the committee's integrity requires total confidentiality around matters of commercial sensitivity. Being rid of Cr Wilson will reduce the risk of future breaches of confidence.
The council's collective sagacity will be tested when it decides on the matter next month.