How many meetings has your councillor missed?
Your elected members are there to represent your interests. But to do that, they need to show up at meetings.
Let me start with a full disclosure. From February 2009 until May 2014 I was a staff member at Whangarei District Council. As the person responsible for preparing the town plan for the district, I needed to attend a lot of council meetings.
These meetings are important, because this is the opportunity for elected councillors to provide direction to staff. They are also the forum in which all decisions are made, based on the information they are presented with. This decision-making authority is what you — the voters — have given your elected members.
Councillors make decisions that affect you, and they do this on your behalf. This vested responsibility is of course significant, and should not be taken lightly. And I have experienced first hand how this decision-making process works. Like any group of humans, the personalities, dynamics and balance of power ebbs and flows depends on the composition of the group.
I have seen projects succeed or fail because one particular councillor was absent.
Things I started noticing
Some councillors always seem to be there. Full council meetings, committee meetings, workshops, and even sub-committees that they aren’t a part of, but go to out of interest. They are usually the ones who seem to have a really thorough grasp of what is going on.
Then there are the other ones. The ones that always seem to turn up 2 minutes into the meeting, or disappear at tea time and miss the last session of the morning. I thought I started to notice a pattern, but wasn’t sure. Maybe it was because I got annoyed by people interrupting proceedings by turning up late, so I tended to notice that more than absenteeism. I decided to find out.
A matter of public record
The Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 requires council meeting agendas and minutes to be made publicly available. Most councils like Whangarei District Council publish their meeting agendas and minutes on their website. I decided to look through all the committee minutes for the current election term (since 30 October 2013).
Each council will generally have “Full Council” and “Extra-Ordinary Council” meetings that all elected councillors are members of. These are the meetings where delegations are issued, budgets are allocated, and policies are decided. Then there are council committees, which are typically tasked with “portfolios” of issues to deal with, such as finance, infrastructure, planning or community services.
In the Whangarei District, every councillor is a member of the Infrastructure Committee, Planning Committee, and Finance Committee. Subcommittees comprised of only some councillors are/have been the 20/20 Inner City Revitalisation Committee, Audit and Risk Committee, Community Funding Subcommittee, and Exemptions and Objections Committee.
So, how have our councillors been performing in terms of meeting attendance?
I went through the minutes of every committee and subcommittee meeting and collected data on councillors’ attendance. Where minutes recorded an apology, I marked down a count of zero for that councillor. Councillors that were absent without an apology I also recorded as zero. I was tempted to dock a point for being truant, but I am doing my best to keep the data free from any judgement.
I noticed that the minutes recorded late arrivals, early departures, and other comings and goings during the meeting sessions. Not wanting to beat up on people needing to leave the room for, er, brief intervals, I adopted what I felt was the reasonable approach of ignoring any absence of 5 minutes or less. My attendance record does not penalise anyone who popped out to feed the parking meter or take an important phone call.
In hindsight, I wish that I had recorded every instance of absence, because after getting a long way into the data entry I noticed that one or two councillors were routinely 2 minutes late for the start of the meeting. Perhaps they didn’t miss anything past the “apologies” section of the agenda, but still, poor form.
The 5 minute cut-off turned out to be a good metric, though, because longer absences tended to be around 20 minutes or more. Since many of the meetings only ran for an hour, that was quite a lot of critical council business that was being missed. Where a councillor was in attendance, but missed more than 5 minutes of a meeting, I gave them a score of 0.5. Otherwise, they received full marks for attendance.
I have published the data that I captured from the Whangarei District Council Meeting Minutes on my GitHub data repository in .csv format. That data includes the attendance at every minuted council meeting since 30 October 2013, including all committees and subcommittees.
I am interested to see whether this information will help to inform voters when it comes time to elect a new council in October 2016. To this end, I have assembled some conveniently shareable “brag posts” for all aspiring candidates and civic-minded voters to share. You can find them all below, ranked in order of highest to lowest attendance scores for incumbent councillors.
I would encourage any #opendata or #opengov people to have a look and play around with the data to see if they could do something similar in their jurisdictions.