Seeking discussions clearance for councillors

Kate Wilson.
Kate Wilson.
The Dunedin City Council will seek clearance from the Office of the Auditor-general (OAG) for two city councillors to continue debating a new events attraction fund.

The move came after suggestions yesterday Crs Kate Wilson and Richard Thomson should not have debated or voted on the $400,000-a-year fund, as both ran businesses that could benefit from it. The suggestion was dismissed yesterday by the councillors themselves, as well as council staff and Mayor Dave Cull. However, council governance manager Sandy Graham confirmed the OAG would be asked for a ruling before a final decision on the fund was made by councillors in May.

Cr Kate Wilson, who runs a Middlemarch cafe, said yesterday she sought advice from Ms Graham, and received a clearance, before taking part in Monday's debate on the fund.

Councillors voted to proceed with the fund, subject to public consultation, because of the economic benefits more big events to Dunedin could bring to the city's businesses.

Cr Wilson was among those who argued for the fund and told councillors turnover at her cafe had increased when fans flocked to Dunedin for Elton John's concert at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Cr Richard Thomson also argued for the fund, saying turnover at his Dunedin retail store jumped 80% thanks to the concert.

Critics posting messages online yesterday suggested both councillors should have withdrawn from the debate and vote because they appeared to have pecuniary interests in the decision.

Richard Thomson.
Richard Thomson.
However, Cr Wilson told the Otago Daily Times her interest was no greater than a substantial number of other people involved in retail, hospitality or other businesses, and her comments were ''not about whether I would personally benefit''.

Monday's vote was also only to include the fund in the council's draft budget for public consultation, and was not a final decision, she said.

Cr Thomson said he had been trying to stress the benefits of keeping Dunedin people - and their money - in the city, rather than leaving them to fly to other cities for major concerts.

His comments were not designed to protect his own business interests, he said.

Mr Cull said yesterday he was confident neither councillor had acted improperly.

Ms Graham said it was appropriate both declared interests, but neither stood to lose or gain by voting to include the fund in a draft budget for consultation.

Pecuniary interest restrictions in legislation did not apply when the interest was one ''in common with the public'', but she could offer no advice on when that exception applied.

However, the OAG had previously said such an interest did not need to be shared by the entire public, Ms Graham said.

''It is sometimes enough that a councillor is part of a large group of people affected in a similar way.''

Black and white?

Regardless of my opinion of the fund, I'm not convinced the situation is neccessarily as black and white as MikeStk would have us believe.

MikeStk claims that Section 6 excludes the councillors, and cites s6(1) to support his case.  In doing so he ignores s6(1A) lists exemptions to the rule, but perhaps more importantly s6(3)(f) has this to say:

"Nothing in subsection (1) shall apply with respect to any of the following matters...  ...any matter in which, in the opinion of the Auditor-General given before the vote or discussion and on written application to the Auditor-General for his or her opinion, the pecuniary interest of a member is so remote or insignificant that it cannot reasonably be regarded as likely to influence him in voting on or taking part in the discussion of that matter."

In other words, S6(1) does not neccessarily apply in a situation where, as the auditor general has stated, "the councillor is part of a large group of people affected in a similar way" because under such circumstances, the pecunairy interests of the councillor could be regarded as insignificant or remote, depending on specific circumstances.

At this point though, the OAG has been notified (per S(6)(3)(f)) and will no doubt provide an opinion on the matter.

It's the law

Chripbird: not only is voluntary disclosure an option, it's also the law, it's mandatory. It's also required by the council's own code of conduct - rules created by the council itself which seem to only be being obeyed in the breach.

voluntary disclosure is an option

Councillors may not be legally obliged to make public disclosures of all  business interests but they can do this voluntarily.

In a small city like Dunedin where business people are bound to form networks in different capacities, councillors and candidates being up front with such information is sure to impress voters.

Pecuniary interest

It doesn't matter whether some other people might also benefit, section 6 of the  Local Govt (Members' Interest) Act says:

"A member of a local authority or of a committee thereof shall not vote on or take part in the discussion of any matter before the governing body of that local authority or before that committee in which he has, directly or indirectly, any pecuniary interest, other than an interest in common with the public."

So if all of the public were shopkeepers who benefit from the stadium then, yes, the councillors would be allowed to legally talk about this issue -- but they're not, they are elected at large to represent all the city's residents. They are already in breach of the act they must step aside.

Equally councillors who have ever received free, or cheap tickets for  stadium events are covered by section 6 and should not take part in discussion of stadium issues - again this doesn't apply if all the ratepayers get free tickets to the same events.

This is not the only case where Councillors were in breach of the act, the council's recent rejigging of the directorships of the council's companies has been welcome because at least one of the councillors appears to have been in breach of section 3 of the act.

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