Workshops held by the Hibiscus & Bays Local Board are now open for the public and media to attend after member Leanne Willis succeeded in getting a notice of motion passed at a Skype meeting on May 21.
Closed-door workshops, which include presentations by Council staff and discussion of items, were introduced when Auckland Council formed.
It is six years since the first attempt to get the workshops open. Similar motions by Greg Sayers, David Cooper and Caitlin Watson were voted down in 2014, 2015 and 2018 respectively. At times it was very close – in 2015 and 2018 the motion was only lost by former chair Julia Parfitt’s casting vote.
This time around it was a clear majority – the only member that did not vote for open workshops was Gary Holmes.
Leanne, along with Gary Brown and Andy Dunn, campaigned for open workshops when they stood for the local board last year. The other Hibiscus member, Janet Fitzgerald, along with the Bays’ Julia Parfitt, said during the campaign that their preference was to replace workshops with an additional business meeting. This option, which Julia told members would allow for more urgent, transparent and accountable decision-making (because decisions are made in business meetings) was also put forward at the May 21 meeting, but lost by chair Gary Brown’s casting vote.
Leanne says while she was confident that she had the numbers, there was “a lot of push-back and pressure from staff and Gary Holmes before the meeting”.
“I have learned a lot since I was elected, and knew that the notice of motion would be debated openly, at the meeting,” Leanne says. “But there were some who wanted a lot of prior discussion that wasn’t necessary.”
Deputy chair Victoria Short, who seconded the motion, said she did so for better transparency. “I think it’s important that the public are well informed on our decisions and know where their money is being spent,” she told the meeting. “This makes us more inclusive and accountable.”
In voting for open workshops, Julia said that she still does not believe it is the best way forward and if it is not effective, she will re-visit her alternative once again.
Leanne says that the decision to open workshops has caused a ripple among other local boards that may want to follow suit. “I’m hoping this will eventually become the default,” she says.
The decision means that as well as the local board’s monthly business meetings and community forums, details of the time and place of workshops will be advertised and anyone may attend to view the discussions. Currently all of these are still being held via Skype.
Power in chair’s hands
Hibiscus Matters has strongly argued for open workshops, believing that closing them was an opportunity to discuss items that do not meet the criteria for confidentiality, away from the public eye.
With this in mind, one cause for concern that remains is a proviso that allows an item to be held in closed session when the chair agrees with staff “that it is in the best interests of the local board and community to do so”.
This effectively allows the chair to decide what is, and is not, confidential and we will be looking closely at how this power is exercised. This has already taken place – the chair advises that last week’s workshop was closed to the public “because members are receiving material that is under development and will be released to the public in June”.
The next workshop is on June 11 and the chair will decide whether or not to open it. “My decision will be made at least a week before the workshop so that dates and times can be published on the council website and posted on the local board’s Facebook page,” chair Gary Brown says.
Hibiscus Matters will attend as many workshops as we can and report on them whenever items of public interest come up.