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Investigation into council practices

The Ombudsman investigated eight councils to see whether they were following the right processes in their meetings and workshops and says it is in the public interest to know that decisions are made appropriately. By Linda O’Reilly, Special Counsel, Tompkin Wake.
Council meetings

These surveys by the Ombudsman found that the public wants more information about meetings – such as earlier access to meeting agendas, the subject matter of closed meetings, and access to more detail in the minutes.

The Ombudsman recommends that:

  • Minutes record details of debates and discussions that occur before a final decision –recording only the final decision is, in the Ombudsman’s view, inadequate.
  • Minutes should show a clear path to how the final decision was made, which includes options that were considered.
  • Minutes should be clear and succinct so that people not in attendance can understand what was decided.

Of the councils investigated, only half were using the statutory form for resolutions to exclude the public, while the other half were using their own templates.

Councils may use their own templates, as long as they include all the information required by Schedule 2A of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 (LGOIMA).

A resolution must be passed if a council wishes to exclude the public from meetings and all information required by Schedule 2A must be recorded.

It was found that almost half of the councils were citing the free and frank expression of opinions as a reason for excluding the public. Although this may be a valid reason for withholding official information, section 48 of the LGOIMA precludes it from being used as a reason to exclude the public from a meeting.

The reason for passing the exclusion resolution should contain specific details, in plain English, about the harm that the council is trying to avoid rather than simply stating the section from the LGOIMA on which it relies.


The Ombudsman believes in the principle of ‘open by default’ regarding workshops. Councils tend to hold workshops to discuss complex issues before a formal meeting and to explore policy options. These workshops are often closed to the public.

It was found that a lot of councils do not publicise the reason for excluding the public from their workshops or the timing and subject matter.

The Ombudsman states that:

  • Controversy, complexity, or potential for embarrassment are not good reasons to close workshops to the public.
  • Details such as time, date and subject matter of open workshops should be publicised in advance.
  • Reasoning for closed workshops and their subject matter should be publicised.
  • Councils are cautioned from substantially narrowing options before public consultation to prevent the public from perceiving that decisions are being made in workshops.
  • Councils should have good records of workshops that are available to the public to alleviate perceptions of prior decision-making.

So, what should the councils be doing in the view of the Ombudsman’s report?

The Ombudsman proposes a number of steps councils need to do to improve their meeting processes and these are set out in the report under the headings: leadership and culture; meetings; workshops; accessibility; and organisation structure, staffing and capability.

We doubt that many councils would currently comply with all the expectations in the report. For example, we know that few Councils record the level of detail the Ombudsman suggests is necessary for council minutes, or advertise workshops as open to the public.

The report should be carefully read, particularly with regards to the expectations of councils, and a review undertaken to see how meeting and workshop processes need to be amended if those expectations are to be met.

We would be happy to assist if you require assistance to implement the Ombudsman’s recommendations.

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