Part 5: Other matters

Consulting the community about local authorities' 10-year plans.

In this Part, we look at some other matters that arose through our audit of consultation documents, including:

Political content

The purpose of a consultation document is to provide an effective basis for public participation in a local authority's decision-making processes about the content of an LTP.

Some local authorities raised issues that had a political focus. For example:

  • discussing opposition to proposed amalgamation; and
  • giving the perception of lobbying the New Zealand Transport Agency for additional funding for roading projects.

A consultation document is a local authority's document, so it can include any information or adopt whatever views the local authority considers appropriate, as long as the consultation document meets the Act's requirements. As we have set out earlier, the auditor needs to assess the reasonableness of the issues presented. A consultation document is clearly part of the local government political process, so it will always include some political context and content.

For some local authorities, particularly Auckland Council and Christchurch City Council, it was important that the consultation documents acknowledged the broader context that the local authorities operate in and the links to central government processes. It is important that, where central government is involved, the local authority accurately reflects commitments based on reasonable assumptions of central government's plans and actions as known or agreed at the time of the consultation document.

SOLGM urged caution in this area and provided the following advice in its LTP guidance to local authorities:

While the [consultation document] supports a political process, the [consultation document] must be an apolitical document. While the document should state matters where the council has a policy, it is not an opportunity for individual elected members to market themselves or their individual views. Take care to write the document in a politically neutral and factual way.24

As set out in Appendix 2, we altered the scope of our audit opinion on the consultation documents of both Upper Hutt City Council and Napier City Council because they included political statements related to amalgamation proposals. In the case of other political issues, these were either resolved before the finalisation of the consultation document or not considered significant enough to affect the audit opinion.

Issuing multiple documents as part of the consultation process

The consultation document is intended to present to the community the most significant issues that require its attention. The consultation document is intended to be a short and accessible document for the average member of the community. The Act does not envisage, but does not preclude, a summary of the consultation document.

Some local authorities issued multiple documents as part of the consultation process. For example, Auckland Council issued a Household Summary as well as a consultation document (see paragraphs 3.24-3.37). Both documents contained the same questions, but the Household Summary was shorter (16 pages compared to 63 pages) and did not contain our audit report.

In another example, a local authority issued a summary of the consultation document that covered the main issues in the consultation document but did not provide details about the rates increases. The local authority did not include rates information because it released the summary before it had completed and adopted the consultation document, so the rates increases had not been finalised.

In both these instances, members of the community raised concerns about the summary consultation documents. The concerns were mainly focused on confusion about the intention of the summary, whether the summary had been audited, and not being clearly told how to obtain fuller information.

Our view is that local authorities need to take great care when deciding to issue additional material such as a summary of the consultation document. Under the Act, the consultation document is the basis for engaging with communities. Unless exceptional circumstances apply, issuing a consultation document should be enough. In our view, there is a difference between a summary, which could appear to the community to be the main document, and a small letterbox drop flyer that is clearly just a pointer to another primary document.

The legislation intended the consultation document to be the sole reference point for consultation. If the consultation document is presented effectively, there should be no need for additional documents.

The Act requires the consultation document to be made publicly available. This means local authorities must make their consultation documents accessible to the general public, including on their websites. Local authorities must tell people that the document is available and how to access it. This contrasts with the previous requirement to distribute a summary of the draft LTP as widely as reasonably practicable and to indicate where the full draft LTP could be obtained.25

This greater flexibility is intended to allow local authorities to make appropriate use of modern technology and to distribute the consultation document in ways that suit individual communities. However, for some members of the community, particularly those who have followed local authority consultation processes for many years, this more flexible process caused some confusion. Further confusion was created when a summary of the consultation document was also introduced into the process.

Adopting the consultation document

A local authority must, before adopting the consultation document, prepare and adopt the information relied on by the content of the consultation document.26 The consultation document must state where people can access this supporting information.

The adopted consultation document must contain the audit report.27

Time frames for completing and adopting the consultation document, including the audit process and the underlying information, are inevitably challenging. However, good project planning should enable local authorities to manage these challenges effectively.

When project timelines are not achieved as planned, time frames can become tight. Timelines slipped for many local authorities, including at least one local authority that was unable to complete its consultation document in time for its scheduled meeting to adopt it. That local authority considered adopting an unaudited consultation document as a draft and beginning consultation on it on the basis that it would ratify the final audited version at its next scheduled meeting. Because the Act requires the consultation document to contain an audit report, we considered that the local authority's proposed approach was wrong.

A local authority needs to formally adopt its consultation document, which includes the audit report, before starting consultation.

24: New Zealand Society of Local Government Managers (2014), Telling our Stories 2015, Wellington, page 20.

25: Section 89.

26: Section 93G.

27: See section 93C(4).