Request for names of guests invited to Mayor’s Christmas function
Section 7(2)(a) LGOIMA applied—low privacy interest in the names of the guests—as guests were representatives of local businesses or other organisations the information was more about their public lives than their private ones—the function was a public event not a private affair—public interest override—transparency and accountability for public spending
A requester asked for a list of the guests invited to the Hutt City Council Mayor’s Christmas function. The Council released the names of its employees, but withheld the names of other individuals, and the organisations to which they were affiliated, in order to protect their privacy. The requester complained to the Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman requested a copy of the information at issue and an explanation of the reasons for withholding. He also consulted the Privacy Commissioner before forming his opinion.
Section 7(2)(a) of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) applies where withholding is ‘necessary to protect the privacy of natural persons’.
The Ombudsman accepted that there was a privacy interest in the names of the guests, and therefore that section 7(2)(a) applied. However, he also considered that the privacy interest was of low weight.
The Privacy Commissioner agreed with this assessment, and commented that the individuals appeared to have been invited as the representatives of local businesses and other organisations, rather than in their private or personal capacity. He also commented that the function itself was not conducted as a private affair, but as a formal event hosted by the Mayor’s office and paid for by public funds.
The Ombudsman did not accept the Council’s suggestion that disclosure would ‘reveal information about the invitees’ schedules or movements’. The list was of those invited to the function by the Council, and reflected ‘decision-making by the Council’ rather than information about the behaviour of the invitees.
Section 7(2)(a) is subject to a public interest test. This means the need to withhold must be balanced against the countervailing public interest in release. If the countervailing public interest weighs more heavily, the information must be released. If not, it can be withheld.
The Ombudsman identified a strong public interest in transparency and accountability for spending public money: ‘The public expect local bodies to act impartially, without being influenced by favouritism or improper personal motives’.
The Ombudsman referred to an earlier case about the withholding of the names of private guests who had dined at a Council’s expense (see case 293402). In that case, the Chief Ombudsman commented that the release of information about agencies’ entertainment and hospitality expenditure:
- promotes accountability of agencies and officials for the expenditure;
- facilitates public understanding of the purpose of the expenditure;
- provides public assurance about the propriety of the expenditure; and
- ensures proper and prudent expenditure of public money through transparency of decision making.
These factors were relevant here also. It made no difference that the earlier request was for the names of guests who had attended an event at the Council’s expense, and the current one was for the names of guests who were invited. There was still a strong public interest in knowing who the Council considered appropriate to invite to the function, even if they did not end up attending.
The Ombudsman concluded that the low privacy interest in the names of the guests was outweighed by the public interest in transparency and accountability for spending public money. The Council agreed to release the information and the complaint was resolved.
This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.