In last week’s Tuesday Club notes I covered the fact that the Mayor and Councillors had engaged 5 of us to undertake a review of CCC’s finances. It was called the “Mayor’s Independent External Advisory Group” (EAG). The EAG followed their brief to the letter. At no stage did we stray outside what was requested of us.
The CEO was requested to report back to the elected reps by 30 November last year on the EAG report and still has not done so. There were several articles in the media about this matter. The first was by David Williams in Newsroom. In this article he analysed the fact that CCC had been told off by the Ombudsman for secrecy in its deliberations in the past. My personal observation is that this secrecy by the executive has not diminished. Here’s what the article said:
The council defends the confidentiality, saying the report contains information about individuals and employment matters. But the report’s secrecy raises echoes of a council excoriated less than two years ago for abusing public information laws.
The article then went on:
A month after (Dawn Baxendale) taking the reins, Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier published a damning report into the Christchurch council’s lack of transparency.
The investigation into compliance with the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) found that, under former chief executive Karleen Edwards top city council staff manipulated reports and kept negative information from councillors and the public. One public example of a perceived culture of defensiveness was the refusal to release the cost of a digital touch wall at the new central library, Tūranga.
Boshier noted in his 2019 investigation report that Baxendale had read his provisional opinion, and indicated problems would be addressed. “Responding in an open and honest way will be the start of delivering cultural change in our organisation at all levels,” she said.
Newsroom asked Baxendale if withholding the external advisory group’s report was a good look, given the Chief Ombudsman’s criticism less than two years ago.
Her emailed response says the report contains information about individuals and employment matters. “The report will be publicly released after the LTP [long-term plan] has been adopted by the council at the end of June.”
This response is precisely what I was worried about. Words. Words. Words. No action. No involvement of Councillors to consider line by line the 30 recommendations of the EAG report. The article then went on:
Why did the council’s reject Newsroom’s request for the report? She repeats the justifications given to Newsroom on April 13, under LGOIMA: “to protect the privacy of natural persons”, “to protect information which is subject to an obligation of confidence”, and “to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinions”.
Baxendale explains the information about individuals and employment matters meant it wasn’t appropriate to release the information, publicly – “as it stands”.
(Newsroom has argued to the Ombudsman that, by its very nature, an external advisory group is not the opinion of the council, and, therefore, should not be kept from the public. Also, redactions should cover privacy concerns. “The council decided it wanted this extra layer of advice,” Newsroom wrote. “The fact the council might not agree with or like its conclusion is neither here nor there.”)
This raises an interesting question in my mind. The External Advisory Group reported to the Mayor and Councillors. It is elected reps report, not the CEO’s. My question would be is it up to the CEO to be holding back this report? Is it not the role of the elected reps to manage this process under the OIA?
Here’s the article: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/exasperated-ex-mayor-dishes-on-secret-report
The Press coverage of the event drew out this comment from the CEO:
Baxendale said 60 per cent of the report’s recommendations had been built into the LTP and others were still being looked at. The recommendations had helped save about $18m and there was potential for another $30m-plus to be saved, she said. Baxendale said the report was money well spent given the potential savings the group helped identify.
This bit is fascinating. We are finally dealing with some numbers. The question I would have about this is that, if I were still an elected rep, I would be asking for all of the recommendations of the EAG on a schedule and adding up precisely what savings were taken from the report and which ones still have to be worked on. I do wonder how the figure of 60% was arrived at. Was it 60% of the financial savings? Was it 60% of the recommended restructures?
It is essential with public documents that the public can have confidence in the transparency of public organisations processes and the accuracy of the numbers.
In the Press article there was this quote:
New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union spokesman Louis Houlbrooke said it was a real concern that ratepayers were not able to cast their eye over the recommendations before LTP submissions closed in April. “The council might fear the political consequences of releasing a critical report, but that’s not a legitimate reason to withhold public information.”
This is an interesting observation. It is not the elected reps who withheld this report. It was the CEO. The politicians employed our Group. The executive has blocked it being made public.
Here’s something for Tuesday Club readers to ponder over. If any of the big accounting firms had been engaged to write this report, would they have been as open and transparent in their reporting as the EAG has been? Would they, in the interests of getting further assignments, backed down if the CEO had resisted their recommendations? Maybe the EAG is a good model for CCC to use in the future rather than the Big 4?