Auckland Council stalled release of reports

by Todd Niall / 21 May, 2018

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Auckland mayor Phil Goff. Photo / Kim Baker Wilson

The release of the $935,000 consultants' report on a downtown stadium on Friday was the third time RNZ had to resort to the Ombudsman's Office to extract public information.

The information was eventually found to have been wrongly withheld by Auckland Council.

All three directly involve the mayor Phil Goff.

In the latest case, RNZ had requested at the end of November 2017 the "pre-feasibility" study looking at the prospects for a downtown stadium.

Advocacy for a closer look at the stadium had been part of Mr Goff's election campaign.

Mr Goff personally called for the report soon after he was elected Mayor in October 2016, following 33 years in national politics.

Consultants PwC were engaged in January, although that move was not publicly announced until March, and the draft was delivered on time in June to the council agency Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA).

Mr Goff opted for a verbal briefing and did want a copy of the draft.

The council argued initially that the report was only a draft, and therefore not required to be released under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA).

Wrong, said Ombudsman Leo Donnelly in an opinion he sent to Auckland Council and released to RNZ.

"There is no basis for a blanket withholding of drafts under LGOIMA until they are completed and finalised," he wrote.

"To have a standard approach of withholding draft reports until they have been fully signed off, leaves the process open to exploitation by agencies who want to hold off release of information until it is most convenient."

Read the Ombudsman's opinion on Auckland Council's arguments here (693.4KB)

In negotiations between the council and the Ombudsman, a senior council legal manager had also rejected the notion that public interest was not a ground for release.

"Any interest in the contents of the Report is tangential to the overall stadium issue, and falls into the category of being interesting to the public as opposed to being of legitimate concern to the public."

Wrong, opined the Ombudsman.

"This is a project which, were the matter to progress, would involve the use of significant public funds, either through the council or central government," wrote Leo Donnelly.

"There is a public interest in the Council being transparent at each step of the process."

RNZ understands that the mayor's office has been the key player in seeking the withholding of the "draft" report, and it was the mayor's office which managed the reports' release on Friday.

The delay allowed the report to be released along with a freshly updated version of the council's future strategy for the roles of its major sporting venues.

It also allowed Mr Goff to have a "conversation" with Finance Minister Grant Robertson on the subject, just a week ago.

It's a re-run of RNZ's effort to get a report commissioned by Mr Goff on the future of the vehicle import trade on Auckland's waterfront.

Again, moving Auckland's port long-term and the space-hungry vehicle import trade in the shorter term, were Goff campaign battle cries.

Again, fresh in office, Mr Goff ordered a report on the costs and benefits, and a draft was completed in May 2017.

It didn't support Mr Goff's view that the trade was a blight on the waterfront. RNZ's request for a copy in July was declined.

In one email, in which the name of the sender and recipient was redacted, one official referred to the response being prepared to RNZ's initial request.

"Could you please record that this response must be reviewed by the Mayor's Office please."

In an email exchange that included key figures in the mayor's tight-knit office, a senior council officer outlined how the release could be slowed.

"If Todd (RNZ's Todd Niall) objects, his only recourse is to appeal to the Ombudsman, and that process will take time, and may be overtaken by the planned release," he wrote.

RNZ brought that line, and other issues regarding the council, to the attention of the Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier.

Mr Boshier March announced in March the office would investigate whether Auckland Council had acted improperly.

"We plan to complete the investigation as soon as possible given the significant issues that have been raised," he said in a statement to RNZ.

It is not clear whether Mr Goff's office was active in the third case, in which two paragraphs in a letter written to him were withheld by the council from RNZ for 15 months.

Following the mayor's public criticism of the council's economic development agency ATEED spending $500,000 developing a global market campaign, ATEED chair David McConnell replied to Mr Goff by letter.

"I am concerned with the events of the past week and, on the face of it, a position and response taken by your office that lacked any genuine engagement with ATEED," wrote Mr McConnell.

Mr Goff has distanced himself personally from the lengthy withholding of both the Vehicle Import report, and the Stadium report.

"I had no particular interest in whether the report went out," he told RNZ in relation to the NZIER report into the vehicle trade.

Mr Goff told RNZ he released the PWC stadium report on Friday within two hours of getting final approval from the Ombudsman, to redactions the council wanted to make on locations and potential partners.

One of those redactions was the estimated overall cost of the project.

The outcome of the Ombudsman's Office investigation into Auckland Council conduct around public information release, is still awaited.

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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