Chief ombudsman Peter Boshier is warning councils there will be a tighter focus on their obligations under Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA).
He says local democracy is being undermined by the failure of some councils to meet their freedom of information obligations. Next month it will be 30 years since the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) came into force.
The guiding principle of the law is that information shall be made available unless there is a good reason for withholding it.
This means that, regardless of where people live in New Zealand, they have the right to ask for information from their council about decisions that concern them.
“It is my job to monitor developments and investigate complaints from people dissatisfied by their local authority’s response to requests for official information,” says Peter.
“You would think that councils would apply the same standard to official information as they do to building inspections and water quality across the country.
“Unfortunately, the timeliness and quality of council responses have been uneven.”
In recent years, requests for information from ratepayers and residents have become increasingly sophisticated. People are asking for greater transparency over the use of their rates, particularly during the early stages of the decision-making process.
They want councillors and officials to be more accountable. This includes having access to communications between elected representatives and others.
In the age of information, residents expect councils to find things easily and make them available quickly, especially when they can inform public debate on important issues.
Peter says he is surprised that, after 30 years, some councils are failing to meet the expectations of the people they serve.
“This failure undermines local democracy. This is at a time when the overall reputation of the sector remains relatively low, according to LGNZ’s latest New Zealand Local Government Survey.”
He says some councils have been responsive. However, other local authorities have yet to make the transition.
“Some councils’ record keeping and information retrieval isn’t as good as it should be.
“I understand the practicalities. Local authorities don’t have unlimited resources but there are many practical steps that can be taken and the obligations under LGOIMA remain.
“I am planning to put greater emphasis on improving local government practice over the coming years.
“My staff have begun reporting complaints data and investigating the general practices of central government agencies in handling official information requests. I am looking now to extend this programme to the local government sector.
“I should like local authorities to see the 30th anniversary of LGOIMA as an opportunity to review their own systems and make improvements.”
Peter says his office is happy to offer support, advice and guidance.
This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.