Local councils failing to meet OIA obligations

The chief ombudsman has said that local councils are failing to meet their obligations under the Official Information Act.

RNZ:  Local councils slammed for failing to supply information

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said councils are not meeting their responsibilities under the Local Government Official Information and Meeting Act and that some councils seem to resent having to be held accountable.

“The performance of many councils is disappointing. Local government is absolutely fundamental to democracy, and in that respect the need for accountability and supply of information is just as strong as it is with central government, and yet many local councils don’t see it that way.

“We will commence a better process of publicising our data on complaints, giving better guidance and encouraging an earlier dispute resolution process so ratepayers who often have legitimate complaints can get to the end of the journey earlier than before.”

Last year 248 complaints were received under the act, Mr Boshier said.

There was a mix of a failure to supply information and other queries about process, he said.

People wanted to know why a council came up with certain rates, what had happened at meetings, and follow up information, for example.

The whole idea of the act was to make sure there was accountability and so ratepayers could participate in democracy.

The Dunedin City Council was slammed in an ODT editorial on Monday – see ODT editorial on secrecy and the OIA

In one case, the council is choosing not to answer questions which have been put to it by this newspaper for nearly a year about alleged bullying and other problems in its city property department. Despite Official Information Act requests, it is withholding a Deloitte report, saying it needs to protect privacy and also citing commercial sensitivity. Elected representatives and council staff all ran for cover when asked for comment. The ODT has now referred the matter to the Office of the Ombudsman.

This refusal to engage is a very troubling development. Stalling, fudging and engaging in sophistry make any organisation look bad.

Especially when the mayor and councillors campaigned on greater transparency. Politicians want transparency on successes, but want secrecy on failures and embarrassments – that’s a natural human trait, which is why the OIA is important to make sure they are transparent about everything, not just what they choose to reveal.

Human rights in prison

On The Nation this morning:

Lisa Owen talks to Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier about whether inmates’ human rights are being violated in our prisons and what his office can do to deal with the issue.

Prisoners lose some rights, like freedom and voting, but a decent society still has to provide human rights in prisons.

Boshier says resourcing is “at the heart” of issue of cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners.

“You can’t have someone in prison with high mental health needs and no appropriate way of treating that prisoner”.

“Frankly I’m horrified… that Serco occurred under our noses” says Boshier.

An unfortunate experiment at Mt Eden prison.

Boshier says he’s concerned about use of restraints in private secure dementia units.

“I’m deliberately signalling that we need to watch this space” he says.

Boshier says he’ll go to Parliament in a year to ask for more funding to expand monitoring of secure dementia units.

 

Disgraceful Key admission on OIA delays

John Key has admitted delaying the release of official information as long as possible if the Government thinks it’s in it’s interests to do so. This is very disappointing.

Radio New Zealand reports PM admits using delaying tactics.

Prime Minister John Key has admitted the Government sometimes delays releasing official information right up to the deadline if it is in its best interest to do so.

Legally, it must respond to requests as soon as reasonably possible.

…ministers and government departments must respond to a request as soon as reasonably possible and no later than 20 working days.

The principal of deliberate delays is bad enough, that it is flaunting clear legal and moral requirements is disgraceful.

Mr Key has always maintained that when it comes to requests for official information, his ministers act within the law.

But he has now revealed a strategy which appears at odds with that.

“Sometimes we wait the 20 days because, in the end, Government might take the view that’s in our best interest to do that,” he said.

It appears to be much worse than delaying releases up to 20 working days.

Mr Key’s admission comes just days after the release of official advice on child poverty which Radio New Zealand requested 17 months ago.

That sort of delay is a huge concern. The public deserves much better than this from Government (and from Key and National).

Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem said they were not allowed to delay right up to that 20-day deadline for political purposes.

“It’s pretty clear. It couldn’t be much clearer than that… As soon as you have made a decision as to whether you’re going to respond to the request or how you’re going to respond to it, you ought to convey that.”

However, there are no sanctions for deliberately delaying the release of official information.

There shouldn’t need to be sanctions, the public should be able to expect that Government will comply with the law – and be willingly open and transparent.

She stressed she had not heard of ministers delaying responses within the 20-day timeframe but said it would be hard to prove.

“That’s the sort of thing that I expect we’ll pick up as we consult. And we’ll be consulting widely, including media, so that we can identify any blatant or egregious attempts to dodge responsibility, but… I’m not aware of any of that sort of thing going on at all.”

Dame Beverley said her review would not be a witch hunt but would look into agencies’ practices and highlight any misinterpretations or difficulties.

Highlighting “misinterpretations or difficulties” might be worthwhile.

But it’s not good enough. The public deserves better.

I think we should get a genuine assurance from John Key that his Government will fully and willingly comply with the clear intent of the Official Information Act.

If he doesn’t assure us – and demonstrate that he’s serious in practice – then this third term Government will be burdened by suspicions of being cynical, manipulative and abusive of laws that are there to promote the public good.