Ombudsman eyes new watchdog for councils

Calling for more transparency in local government, Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has suggested a new type of oversight body to police dysfunctional and secretive relationships between council staff, councillors and mayors, Marc Daalder reports

Local councils are struggling to comply with the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier told MPs on Wednesday.

His solution is "something, by way of a structure, to support, oversee and provide", an idea that intrigued the members of Governance and Administration Select Committee that Boshier was briefing on the results of investigations into the LGOIMA compliance and practices of six councils.

The most high-profile of his reports, on Christchurch City Council, found that top staff manipulated reports and kept negative information secret from councillors and the public. But all councils have room to improve, Boshier said. In part, this is a matter of leadership and executive culture, but councils also don't always have the resources or know-how to meet their LGOIMA obligations.

Systemic questions raised

Boshier and MPs alike raised questions about the entire structure for oversight and transparency in local government. 

"I'm happy to talk to the committee about some ideas I've got for local government and trying to get a better oversight to enable this work to be done more consistently throughout the country," Boshier said at the start of his appearance.

He elaborated on this in response to a question from National MP Lawrence Yule about the coaching councils on cooperating with councillors and increasing transparency.

"I think that there are more checks and balances in central government," Boshier said. Ministers and chief executives of government departments have more experience and resources than mayors and council bosses.

"When it comes to local government, we've got Local Government New Zealand, the Society of Local Government Managers, the Local Government Commission and the Department of Internal Affairs. None really supply a helpful support of oversight in the fashion that I think is necessary," he said.

There's a gap in the legal framework, therefore. "Let's say there's a council with a dysfunction [between elected officials and the council]. I can't see any easy mechanism for there to be a way in which that dysfunction is therapeutically addressed. It just festers at times and gets worse," he said.

"I feel a Members' Bill coming on," Labour's Ruth Dyson responded.

Boshier said the issue made itself clear in his review of Christchurch City Council. "A number of staff came to see us because they felt there was nowhere else to go. We've recommended within Christchurch that a safe complaint mechanism is set up, so that if some have genuine complaints, there is a way in which they can be heard," he said.

"So, should there be something else other than just coming to the Ombudsman? Well, if we go down the track of thinking about another structure that sits over the top of local government in New Zealand, that could be a body where people could go to and that could then come to us if there's no satisfactory conclusion."

"I do think an overlying structure in the country to supply things such as expertise on HR, to supply guides, to talk through issues, would be very productive. I'm not saying take away local government's autonomy, I'm saying there should be something, by way of a structure, to support, oversee and provide."

Christchurch and Horowhenua singled out

Boshier's reviews covered "leadership and culture, organisational structure, staff and capability, internal policies, procedures and resources, current practices and performance monitoring and learning" in Christchurch, Auckland City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council, Horowhenua District Council, Far North District Council and Tasman District Council.

This was just the first round of investigations, Boshier said. Four reviews were being scheduled, including one in Invercargill and another in Buller.

The councils were chosen not because of any specific wrongdoing, but in order to represent a broad swathe of New Zealand's local government entities.

That said, Boshier identified specific issues with Christchurch and the Horowhenua Council during his appearance before the select committee. On Christchurch, he said, "my investigation identified serious concerns about the Council's leadership and culture".

Horowhenua, Bosher said, "caused me a lot of time, I have to say. Leadership issues between elected members and senior leadership were the issue. The political environment within the Council had a flow-on impact on staff in such an environment. I'd expect to see even stronger leadership from the executive on leadership and transparency."

Broad overview

Overall, "all of the councils mostly complied with LGOIMA requests, in general. They had models for handling requests and LIM reports."

However, all of the councils also "needed to either develop training for staff or enhance existing training to ensure staff at all levels understand their roles and responsibilities under" LGOIMA. Record-keeping was "a bit below par in a number of respects".

Among these, none of the councils recorded reasonings behind LGOIMA decisions. Most councils engaged in some proactive releases, but only one had an actual policy on whether and when to proactively release materials.

At a high level, Boshier said that his "round of investigations has drawn attention to an area of work that until now some councils have not seen as a priority. Secondly, some haven't put in sufficient resource to comply with their LGOIMA obligations."

"Thirdly, the bigger councils generally had established practices in place, but we were still able to highlight what was working well and offer suggestions for improvement. Some of the smaller councils had not thought much about LGOIMA."

Boshier also worried that "councillors and mayors may sometimes not quite understand the line between their governance role and the day-to-day operational business of the council. In other words: boundaries get stretched."

News deserts worsen situation

Boshier praised the work of journalists covering local government, even as news deserts could mean dysfunction in councils slides by unnoticed. "I do think, from media that I see asking the questions that they do, that they are vitally interested in local government," he said.

"If you look at, for instance, what the Christchurch Press is following up in relation to [Boshier's review in] Christchurch, there's a keen interest by journalism. I do want to say, at the macro level, there's a lot of interest by media in councils and they pursue it with some vigor."

Local outlets asking these questions, he said, "is vital. Not only are we there to oversee and monitor, but I think the media's got a vital job in this and we should always encourage that."

A 2018 study in the United States found that borrowing costs in municipalities jumped after local newspapers closed down. "Our main finding is that newspaper closures have a significantly adverse impact on municipal borrowing costs in the long run. Specifically, following the three year period after a newspaper closure, municipal bond offering yields increase by 5.5 basis points, while yields in the secondary market increase by 6.4 basis points," the paper's authors wrote.

The number of journalists in New Zealand fell from 2,277 in 2001 to 1,527 in 2013. Numbers from the 2018 census, which Stats New Zealand says are "moderately" reliable, indicate that there are now around 2,000 journalists in the country.

Dissatisfaction with charging

MPs expressed dissatisfaction with certain practices undertaken by councils. Labour's Ginny Andersen said she had seen Hutt City Council "charging for LGOIMA processes and I'm really interested to know: did you find this in any of the [councils] you examined and what's your view of charging people? They initiated a charging fee."

"We didn't see a lot of charging in any of the councils we looked at," Ainslie Fenwick, the manager of Official Information Practice Investigations at the Ombudsman's Office said.

"But, recently, I've just concluded a complaint investigation where the council wished to charge a councillor for information, which I thought was unusual," Boshier said.

"There are times when, for reasons I cannot understand, the administrative arm decides that it will charge a councillor to supply information. It does happen, I don't think it's prolific, but there are times when it arises."

Get it early – This article was first published on Newsroom Pro and included in Bernard Hickey’s ‘8 Things’ morning email of the latest in-depth business and political analysis. Get it early by subscribing now or starting a 28-day free trial.

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