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New Plymouth council workshop thrown open to public

Nov 09, 2023

By Robin Martin of RNZ

The New Plymouth District Council has held its first public workshop after the Ombudsman reprimanded local authorities for holding too many secret meetings.

Peter Boshier said excuses such as allowing elected members a "safe space" to ask "silly questions" did not stand up to scrutiny.

Throwing open the doors to the Long-term Plan - Revenue and Financing Policy and Financial Strategy workshop, did not result in a rush for seats in the chamber.

No one from the public was there, and council staff occupied most of the media bench.

It is the seventh - and last - workshop dealing with the nuts and bolts of setting rates in the 10-year plan.

Councillors - who have mostly ditched the suit and tie for casual attire - had plenty of questions.

Bali Haque wanted a graph clarified.

"Sorry, what's the vertical axis can you explain ... what is that measuring? Zero point ... what is that?

Deputy mayor David Bublitz also had a query.

"Sorry, just for confirmation we agreed on a 50 percent targeted rate for stormwater. Can you just explain how we can do that on capital value; I may have just missed that part of it?"

Max Brough had utilities in his sights.

"Targeted rates, could we target utilities companies?"

Independent consultant Philip Jones, who was facilitating the workshop, answered in the negative.

Brough wants to know why?

"Because your policy doesn't allow is the first thing," Jones responded.

Brough pushed on.

"So, if we fixed our policy we could target utility companies?"

Jones said such workshops played an important role for councils.

"It's basically informing them of what they can and can't do legally, so when we come to the council meeting someone says 'can we do this' and we go 'no we can't because of X, Y and Z'."

He said workshops also allowed for free and frank discussion without the constraints of the standing orders of formal council meetings.

"In a council meeting, you've only got two or three hours to debate the issue so this is providing background information to the councillors, so when they receive the report on 12 December they can fully debate all the issues and have all the information in front of them to make that decision."

Jones, who welcomed the increased transparency, did not think workshops had become decision-making bodies in and of themselves.

"I haven't seen it. I'm very conscious as a facilitator that my job is to help them understand the decisions that need to be made at a formal meeting, not necessarily give them even a short list of options that need to be brought back."

Brough had lobbied for workshops to be open to the public.

"From day one the default position on workshops is that they should be open to anyone unless we are signing a contract or a lease that's commercially sensitive. There's nothing to hide, nothing to be afraid of."

He said it was important they were transparent.

"No decisions are made, but the framework to set the decision up and achieve the outcome gets made, so that's just as important actually and that's why it needs to be open."

Some councillors made the most of the workshop's casual vibe and dressed down for the occasion.

Amanda Clinton-Gohdes was a fan of the informal approach.

"Well it's a long time in chambers, so look I think jeans are entirely appropriate when you're spending eight hours in a windowless room."

Murray Chong, who was wearing a t-shirt jacket combo was on the same page.

"It business, I've been ripped off by more people in suits than people in jeans."

Dinnie Moeahu, who wore a dark blazer and button-down shirt, saw things differently.

"As someone who honours my mother's memory it's important she always told me 'to dress sharp son and represent your people with mana' and even so I appreciate the casualness of people's dress sense I'm always thinking about what my mum told me."

The full council will debate the rates policy next month.

Main image (RNZ/Robin Martin): Councillor Dinnie Moeahu and deputy mayor David Bublitz.

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