Benson-Pope loses vote on submission response

The Dunedin City Council has been advised to consider redacting defamatory budget submissions before making them public in future.

The advice from the council's lawyers came as the council earlier this week considered how to respond to a submission on its 2014-15 annual plan from former Stop the Stadium president Bev Butler.

Ms Butler, in her submission, had urged the council to investigate ''inappropriate spending'' by the Carisbrook Stadium Trust and Dunedin Venues Management Ltd.

She said the stadium funding process had been ''so flawed that no-one would know whether fraud had occurred or not''.

However, her allegations aimed at individuals had prompted Cr David Benson-Pope to ask that those spoken about be given the chance to respond.

Cr Benson-Pope reiterated that concern on Monday as he pushed for the material submitted by Ms Butler to be forwarded to the parties concerned, to give them a chance to respond.

That should include Ms Butler's written submission, details of her comments made while presenting it, and emails sent later by Ms Butler to the council, Cr Benson-Pope said.

His move came after council chief executive Dr Sue Bidrose confirmed to the meeting she had checked to see whether the council could refuse to accept a submission.

The advice from the council's lawyers was all submissions should be accepted, but redacted to remove potentially defamatory or libellous statements before they were placed in the public domain, she said.

Cr Benson-Pope argued the council had a responsibility under the principle of natural justice to allow people referenced in submissions to respond.

In Ms Butler's case, that should include emails sent to councillors after her submission, which were ''discoverable'' under official information legislation and which had ''expanded the ambit considerably'', he said.

However, Cr Lee Vandervis questioned why Ms Butler was being singled out, and argued it was not the council's role to try to prompt parties to respond to material they might consider libellous in the public domain.

''I don't see any particular issue with any submitter coming here and saying anything as contentious as they like.''

Cr Hilary Calvert was also worried by the proposal, saying the suggestion to go beyond submissions and include emails ''opens a whole new can of worms, in principle''.

Cr Richard Thomson also agreed, saying Ms Butler's comments were ''not something she hasn't said on many occasions before'', and it ''really is a matter between a submitter and who they are referencing''.

Cr Mike Lord went further, saying it was time for the council to ''let a dead dog lie''.

''I have no interest in whether the claims are true or not true. I'm completely ambivalent to it.''

Mayor Dave Cull said he would be ''a little uncomfortable'' taking up Cr Benson-Pope's suggestion without a clear policy governing the referral of such material to outside parties, which the council did not have.

Cr Benson-Pope disagreed, saying the council already had a policy framework ''and it's called natural justice''.

Councillors voted 10-4 against Cr Benson-Pope's move, which won support from only Crs Benson-Pope, Aaron Hawkins, Jinty MacTavish and deputy mayor Chris Staynes.

- chris.morris@odt.co.nz

 

Better things to think about

I'm pleased the majority of councillors voted against Cr Benson-Pope's motion. Perhaps, as the chairman of Regulatory and Planning, he really sought ultimate control of free speech and strong opinion - that in itself goes against natural justice. If he is concerned by Bev Butler's submission to the council's draft annual plan and her courteous and direct follow up email then he should also acquaint himself with what has been placed in public domain through New Zealand's leading media in recent years - the media have accepted her questions and statements on named parties as being worthy of publication and the discursive attention of the general public. Ms Butler is popularly regarded as a tireless researcher and a rigorous defender of the public purse. Where the sentiments of the DCC's political arm truly lie in oversight of the progenitors of the stadium project, and the entities that continue to - without qualm, it seems - soak up, 'inconclusively', millions and millions of dollars of ratepayer funds each year, is a serious matter of public contention. The council's legal advisors might chew on that.

Went right over his head

Mr Pope seems to have missed the whole point of the submission. It wasn't about using the submission process to defame people, it was about investigating about whether fraud had occurred in the process of building the rugby stadium, it was about accountability, about honesty, transparency of government.

Instead of addressing these important issues Mr Pope has turned this into an ad-hominem attack on Ms Butler.

I suggest that if Mr Pope wants to 'clear' the people he is protecting then he should hold exactly the independent full and open investigation into the rugby stadium funding disaster that Ms Butler has asked for in her submission, by not doing he is effectively hiding the truth whatever it is.

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