Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Unlawful secrecy in Rotorua II

Last year, in an effort to improve Māori representation, the Rotorua Lakes District Council attempted to advance the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill. The bill was controversial, violating the Bill of Rights Act, and the mayor’s efforts to have a secret discussion about it caused one councillor to resign. I blogged about that meeting at the time, pointing out that mayor Steve Chadwick's decision to move into secret session appeared to be unlawful. And today, the Ombudsman agreed with me, finding that the decision was unreasonable and appears to have been contrary to law. Highlights:

  • s7(2)(f)(i) (free and frank discussion) is not a valid reason to exclude the public from a meeting;
  • the council's post-hoc justification on the basis of preventing "improper gain or... advantage" because opponents of the bill might use it to "promulgate misinformation" was not a good reason to withhold the information;
  • "the real reason the Council elected to exclude the public was to avoid public scrutiny of a controversial political topic";
  • councils must consider the public interest when deciding to exclude the public, including the permanent public interests in understanding how decisions are made and participating in decision-making;
  • councils must follow the correct procedure when excluding the public from a meeting. The council did not do this, and the decision was effectively made by the (former) mayor alone (allowing the Ombudsman to review it). The council's minutes were "not an accurate reflection of what in fact occurred".

Because the mayor has been de-elected and the Ombudsman is already running an inquiry into public-excluded council "workshops", there's no recommendations. But its a useful ruling, and will hopefully influence the latter.