Council must keep eye on the ball

Just as it seemed the Dunedin City Council was determined to focus on a different attitude towards debt, revelations that a worse-than-expected $3.2 million loss by the company running the Forsyth Barr Stadium was not even discussed at this week's full council meeting have put it back in the firing line and raised questions about its priorities.

The loss - nearly $1 million greater than forecast - was recorded in Dunedin Venues Management Ltd's (DVML) 2011-12 annual report, which was released a day later to this newspaper. But it had flown under the radar at the council meeting, with no mention of the reports on DVML or Dunedin Venues Ltd (DVL), which owns the stadium, on the meeting's public agenda, and no indication those reports had been circulated publicly and to media - as required under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act - ahead of the meeting.

The reasons for that are unclear and convoluted. It appears the results might have been given to councillors as part of an item on Dunedin City Holdings Ltd's (DCHL) annual results presented to media last week but without those results. Mayor Dave Cull denied there was any attempt to sneak the results through; council chief executive Paul Orders said the situation was a mistake, not a conspiracy, but not acceptable; and it appears some councillors had not read much, if any, of the reports and did not draw attention to them at their meeting.

The lack of any debate on the million-dollar loss does seem negligent at best and suspicious at worst, particularly as the full-year result was impatiently awaited, given the half-year result of a $1.9 million loss prompted the council to launch a review of the entire stadium operation in May.

It is worth noting that it slipped through the net during a meeting in which councillors spent two and a-half hours discussing - again - the fate of John Wilson Ocean Dr.

Despite the lengthy debate, that long-standing saga is still not fully resolved. Councillors did change decisions made last year, voting at this week's meeting to reopen the road to vehicles from 11am to 3pm on weekdays from next year, reseal it, and install a 5m-wide carriageway and 4m-wide shared pedestrian/cycle path separated by a low concrete barrier. However, they could not agree on a speed limit for the road and called for a report on that. Information about the possibility of Ski Dogs New Zealand installing a training strip on the road will also be prepared, bringing to at least 17 the total number of reports on the issue.

Cr Kate Wilson said this week that despite many people thinking the stadium issue was hard, the John Wilson Ocean Dr decision had been "far, far harder". But the comments by Cr Neil Collins that the road issue was a "long, sorry saga that had more plots and sub-plots than a Greek tragedy", by Cr Bill Acklin that the issue had "been through the wringer so many times, it's making a laughing stock of the council" and by Cr Lee Vandervis that it was probably "the most acute public embarrassment in the history of the city council" are on the button. While there are undoubtedly extenuating issues around the road - notably public safety and coastal erosion - and debate has polarised the community, it must be put into context, and put to rest.

The cost to ratepayers of the latest proposal (now $160,000), although relevant, is small fry when compared with the cost to build and maintain the stadium, which should surely be a bigger priority for the council.

It is to be hoped the latest reports on the road will clarify - not further confuse - matters, and see a final decision made, rather than requiring recourse to the drawing board again.

And then it is to be hoped the mayor, chief executive, councillors and new DVML chief executive Darren Burden will turn their full attention to making our new stadium a profitable investment of which the city can be proud.

The council is seeking public feedback on how to make the most of the stadium. It is suggested a first step might be for the mayor and councillors to read and familiarise themselves with the details of the first annual report on it - particularly as they are now contemplating asking the public to pay for it again with more rates rises or through a targeted rate for bar and restaurant owners.



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