Kapiti’s Mayor defends informal public forums
Kapiti’s new Mayor, K Gurunathan (Guru), has replied to criticism in KIN with a detailed defence of the new policy of providing public forums, which are neither minuted or recorded. He says:
‘Thank you for the long standing invitation. The informal public forum is an experimental attempt to create another opportunity for members of the public to raise matters with councillors.
The only constraint is the allocated 30 minute time before the start of formal council meetings. So public speakers are asked to speak for 3 minutes with the discretion of the chair to extend that.
The key to this democratic space is the word informal. So no minutes are kept and, apart from some guiding notes, there is no formal recordings done.
Staff are also not present so its entirely an opportunity for members of the public and councillors to explore issues.
Viewed as a clearing house, the forum has the ability to do a number of things:
- 1) it gives individual councillors the opportunity to pick up on a public concern and be a facilitator or champion of that.
- 2) councillors may facilitate referring the matter to a relevant community board.
- 3) councillors may decide the matter significant enough to seek a staff report using the appropriate process to initiate such a report.
- 4) councillors may think the matter important enough for the chair to consider adding it to the formal public speaking time allocated during the formal council meeting.
- 5) councillors may decide not to do anything about a matter raised, apart from listening.
So far, after two public forum exercises, one matter has been taken up by a councillor, another was allowed to to be raised during the public speaking time of the associated formal council meeting, and another was referred to staff for some legal advice.
The last was on the question of whether, despite the informal nature of the meeting, such meetings were required to be done under Standing Orders and, therefore, had to be formally recorded and minuted.
The experiment with this democratic space has been immediately successful at two (perhaps three — Ed) levels.
Firstly, it has allowed some issues to be raised or facilitated early during the day of the council meeting without the person having to wait several hours until the end of the formal meeting.
This was the format generally used by the cabal of chairs in the last triennium except for Gavin Walsh who wisely used his discretion to allow non-agenda items to be raised by speakers as per normal.
That discretion by the chairs still exists. If, when chairing a council meeting the public approach me about any non-agenda item and I think the issue and the circumstances warrant it, I may allow its inclusion during public speaking time. We have four chairs and the style and approach may be different.
The second reason why the forum is already a success is that it has created public interest and debate. Different viewpoints have been taken and positions are being passionately advocated.
The very fact that KIN’s taken the mayor to task and challenged me to respond is the value of the media fulfilling its role as the Fourth Estate. Let’s hope that other more sharper minds feel inspired to engage in this experiment at nutting out a creative democratic space. It is a bit like public art. Nothing like a bit of robust controversy to define that public perception.
There is perhaps a third reason. One that is actually quite ironic. The agenda of last Thursday’s, 18 November, Strategy and Policy Committee meeting included two significant items.
One on the Wellington Regional Natural Hazards Management Strategy and the other on council’s Policy Work Programme.
The first included matters related coastal hazards and also on flooding. The later specifically included an item on KCDC’s Flood Management Strategy.
The public would have been able to speak on these matters and raise questions. Senior staff present would have responded to the issues raised. And the whole thing would have been recorded, minuted and live-streamed to the general public and the political universe.
Yet, member of the public, John Harivel, who spoke on the excellent topic of the need for council to have a holistic approach to flood management, and raised a set of very pertinent questions, chose to speak at the earlier informal public forum. He even raised the question of the right to have it recorded!
He could have waited a few minutes and used the formal meeting and have his points responded tooby senior staff and recorded.
The issues relating to coastal hazards, managed retreat, and public notification, raised at the first informal public forum could also have been formally raised and recorded at Thursday’s formal Strategy and Policy Committee meeting.
It could, therefore, be argued that despite an open, transparent and accountable access being freely available, some have exercised their right not to use it. Choosing instead to rattle-the-cage inside the informal public forum.
Democracy is indeed not only a messy business but also a mind-bending one. As Mr Harivel so eloquently put it he will continue to jerk…the lead.