Christchurch mayoral hopeful warned for contacting staff at a council-owned facility. David Williams reports

A week is a long time in politics.

Christchurch mayoral hopeful Phil Mauger said last week: “I am fully aware of what constitutes a conflict of interest and I have acted in accordance with council rules at all times.”

The city councillor was defending sending a text message to Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel, in November last year, about his son’s film studio proposal – something he described as seeking a clarification.

Dalziel said she felt it was a conflict, but Mauger responded in an emailed statement: “There has been no conflict of interest on my part at any stage during my term as a councillor, nor will there be.”

This morning, the city council released to Newsroom a letter sent by chief executive Dawn Baxendale to Mauger in May, which requested he not communicate directly with staff at council-owned compost facility Living Earth.

(While nominations for local body elections didn’t open until July, Mauger announced he was standing for mayor in September last year.)

Baxendale said as Mauger was a council-appointed director of Transwaste Canterbury – a public-private partnership with Waste Management NZ, the firm that operates Living Earth – he had “a conflict of interest in matters that may benefit or disadvantage the company”.

On May 18, Mauger had, according to Baxendale’s letter, contacted staff at Living Earth “about the use of water misters and cannons” – presumably as a way of dealing with the smell – and referred to the site’s “possible closure”.

His contact created additional anxiety for staff, Baxendale wrote, “in what is already a challenging time”.

The stench emanating from the facility, in the eastern suburb of Bromley, has been an ongoing problem. In January last year, the council was issued with an abatement notice by the regional council, ECan, for discharging “offensive and objectionable odour”.

The council decided it would move the smelly plant, and, in May, when Mauger contacted staff, councillors were considering whether to close Living Earth before another site was found, meaning thousands of tonnes of organic waste would be dumped at Kate Valley landfill, operated by Waste Management.

Baxendale wrote to Mauger: “You are required under the code of conduct to act in a way that upholds the reputation of the council and I am concerned that your action may fall short of the standards of behaviour expected of a council member.

“In future, if you require any further information about Living Earth that you need to know in order to undertake your role, you should use official channels only.

“My staff are aware of your conflict of interest and will provide information that is appropriate in those circumstances.

“If I receive further reports of inappropriate communications with Living Earth staff, I will treat this matter in accordance with the procedures in the code of conduct and will have to raise this with the mayor.”

In an emailed statement this afternoon, Mauger says: “I disagree with the assertions in the letter. I was looking for solutions to help a community under stress.

“I will never stop looking at ways we can help the community. We need to be innovative and proactive in finding solutions to problems – doing nothing is not an option.”

2022-05-19 Ltr to Cllr Mauger Re Living Earth by David Williams on Scribd

Mauger’s main rival for the mayoral chains is former district health board chief executive David Meates. Asked if Baxendale’s letter was a good look, Meates says: “Once again it just highlights the importance of managing conflicts.”

Is it Meates’ view that conflicts weren’t managed well in this case?

“It’s really important in terms of anyone in the governance role that they are managing their conflicts of interest because it has the potential to compromise both them and also the staff involved.

“That goes to the heart of the trust and confidence within an organisation.”

The council is struggling with not only public dissatisfaction, but a staff survey that has revealed deep disquiet within. Many of the 11 mayoral candidates have campaigned on regaining public trust.

Mauger’s term as a councillor has been controversial.

He was fined for digging an unauthorised trench to try and fix flooding issues in the city’s red zone. Then he started developing a quarry in Templeton without a consent.

The former businessman, who says he led a family contracting business for 45 years, has suggested some interesting solutions to council problems.

Most recently, Mauger and fellow councillor Aaron Keown, who’s re-standing in the Harewood ward, announced a plan to put hospital car parking on the tree-lined verge of Hagley Park, on Riccarton Ave.

In April, he suggested the smell from a fire-damaged wastewater plant could be fixed by dousing the trickling filters with a mix of bleach and water from his fire truck tanker. Fellow councillor Melanie Coker, who has a PhD in biochemistry, pooh-poohed the idea because it might create more hazardous chemicals.

While Mauger and Meates have agreed on some things, like the need for a new stadium and promising not to sell the city’s assets, they’ve clashed on topics such as cycleways, and balancing the council books.

Mauger has promised to improve core services, reduce debt and keep rates affordable – while Meates has questioned how lower rates and debt reductions are achievable without cutting services.

Mauger’s mayoral campaign has been unusual for endorsing 13 city council candidates, and contributing financially to four of their campaigns.

A trio of councillors – Mauger, James Gough and Sam MacDonald – invited Baxendale to dinner in August, to discuss “mutual expectations”. The chief executive said such discussions shouldn’t be held over dinner, and should involve her leadership team.

By Tuesday night, voting returns in Christchurch had reached 31.55 percent – higher than at the same point in the last three local body elections.

That’s ahead of Auckland (23 percent), Wellington (19.21 percent), and Dunedin (27.84 percent). Voting in the local body elections closes at midday on Saturday.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

Leave a comment