Christchurch’s city council is again under scrutiny for a lack of transparency. David Williams reports.
A former Christchurch mayor has used a public hearing to disclose details of a $95,000 report which touts millions of dollars in potential cost savings and is being kept secret by the city’s council.
The council defends the confidentiality, saying the report contains information about individuals and employment matters. But the report’s secrecy raises echoes of a council excoriated less than two years ago for abusing public information laws.
In January last year, Christchurch’s council approved the terms of reference for an external advisory group – an ad hoc group formed to give the council “independent, objective and evidence-based advice” for its long-term plan, which will set priorities for the next 10 years.
At a cost of $95,000, the group delivered a 46-page report, with 30 recommendations, last October. The council refuses to publicly release it, despite a request by Newsroom. (We have complained to the Ombudsman.)
Meanwhile, the long-term plan process marches on. A draft was released for public comment in March, outlining its $13.1 billion budget over the next decade, with proposed savings of $329 million in operating costs.
Public submissions closed in April, and hearings have just concluded. Councillors will finalise the 10-year plan next month – without, it seems, the public seeing the contents of the advisory group’s report, or being able to comment on it.
However, thanks to Christchurch’s mayor from 1998 to 2007 Garry Moore, who chaired the advisory group, a few vague details have now emerged.
At long-term plan hearings in Christchurch last week, Moore told councillors some of the advisory group report’s recommendations “were observations of a number of pointless middle people adding complexity and no value”.
The council’s bloated $5.7 billion capital programme is too big and can’t be delivered, the group believed. The council had 750 individual computer programmes – too many, it seems, an “over-staffed” research division, and its economic development and tourism arm, ChristchurchNZ, needed to be reviewed, restructured and refocused.
“Our group cost you $95,000 – have you considered our report during your deliberations?” Moore asked councillors. “There’s millions of dollars of savings you could obtain out of this report, and my observation is that there’s been a fair bit of tinkering around the edges, with libraries and art and things like that, instead of looking at the hard things we had in our report.”
Newsroom put to Moore it must be clear to him from the draft long-term plan, released publicly, if its 30 recommendations had been embraced. Did its report make any difference?
“That is precisely why I made the submission I did,” he says. To highlight it had been ignored? “Correct.”
Moore, who says most of the report should be released publicly without delay, is extremely disappointed. He says his highly skilled group met fortnightly for months, in meetings attended by councillors and chief executive Dawn Baxendale.
Beyond Moore, a trained accountant, the other group members were: professional director Louise Edwards; Mark Christison, Fulton Hogan’s national water manager and a former general manager of water and waste at the city council; experienced lawyer and professional director Jen Crawford; and UNICEF NZ chief executive Michelle Sharp.
Moore asks: “Why waste our time and their money doing something that’s actually being ignored? To me that’s just shameful.”
Baxendale took the job as Christchurch City Council’s chief executive in October 2019, flying her family from the United Kingdom where she’d headed the Birmingham City Council. (The UK council was criticised in a government-ordered report for its “denial, defensiveness and push-back about the extent of its problems, risks and challenges”.)
A month after taking the reins, Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier published a damning report into the Christchurch council’s lack of transparency.
The investigation into compliance with the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) found that, under former chief executive Karleen Edwards top city council staff manipulated reports and kept negative information from councillors and the public. One public example of a perceived culture of defensiveness was the refusal to release the cost of a digital touch wall at the new central library, Tūranga.
Boshier noted in his 2019 investigation report that Baxendale had read his provisional opinion, and indicated problems would be addressed. “Responding in an open and honest way will be the start of delivering cultural change in our organisation at all levels,” she said.
Newsroom asked Baxendale if withholding the external advisory group’s report was a good look, given the Chief Ombudsman’s criticism less than two years ago.
Her emailed response says the report contains information about individuals and employment matters. “The report will be publicly released after the LTP [long-term plan] has been adopted by the council at the end of June.”
The group’s recommendations did inform decision-making, Baxendale says. Given the mayor, Lianne Dalziel, and councillors received the report in October, the group’s recommendations were considered during workshops.
Why did the council’s reject Newsroom’s request for the report? She repeats the justifications given to Newsroom on April 13, under LGOIMA: “to protect the privacy of natural persons”, “to protect information which is subject to an obligation of confidence”, and “to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinions”.
Baxendale explains the information about individuals and employment matters meant it wasn’t appropriate to release the information, publicly – “as it stands”.
(Newsroom has argued to the Ombudsman that, by its very nature, an external advisory group is not the opinion of the council, and, therefore, should not be kept from the public. Also redactions should cover privacy concerns. “The council decided it wanted this extra layer of advice,” Newsroom wrote. “The fact the council might not agree with or like its conclusion is neither here nor there.”)
Baxendale maintains it was always the council’s intention to publicly release the advisory group’s report, “with appropriate redactions”, after the long-term plan has been adopted.
Yet, if that was the case, the council could have refused Newsroom’s request to be provided a copy under section 17 of LGOIMA, because “the information requested is or will soon be publicly available”.
What of Moore’s criticism of Baxendale, that she was asked to respond to the report by November 30, but hasn’t? The response doesn’t deny the request was made. (The council’s LGOIMA response to Newsroom notes a response or briefing by council staff to the group’s report doesn’t exist or can’t be found.)
In a sign, perhaps, the chief executive’s response was drafted by someone else, or just that she favours speaking about herself in the third person, the email says: “The chief executive will provide a report to the council in response to the EAG report, noting the changes that have been implemented.”
Deputy Mayor Andrew Turner, who ran the hearing last week at which Moore spoke, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Baxendale last December restructured the council’s executive team, shrinking it from eight to five. She’s drawn criticism – from Moore, no less, through his Tuesday Club public forum – for not having a qualified engineer and accountant at the top table.
This is the third time Moore has sat on an external advisory group for the city council’s long-term plan, and he’s clearly frustrated about how, he believes, its work has been put to one side. Given the time invested, he thinks it should be valued – and that includes releasing it publicly.
“Transparency’s what democracy’s about and when institutions play games with information you’ve got to actually have a hard look at that institution,” Moore says.
It’s fair to assume Christchurch ratepayers – facing $13.1 billion of spending in the next 10 years – might want some value out of the external advisory report, too.