Georgina Campbell: Wellington City Council’s secrecy over code of conduct complaints unacceptable

OPINION:

It feels like Wellington City Council is putting a brick wall between code of conduct complaints and the public, when it should be striving for transparency.

First it happened with a complaint made against councillor Simon Woolf, which the council refused to release to the Herald on the grounds his privacy should be protected.

The Herald disagreed with the council’s decision and complained to the Ombudsman more than 16 months ago to argue elected members accepted an attenuated right to privacy when they took public office.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier recently ruled the council should have released the information.

He accepted there is a high public interest in transparency and accountability regarding an elected official’s actions and conduct.

Now, the findings of a code of conduct investigation into mayor Andy Foster is set to be considered by councillors in a public excluded part of a full council meeting next week.

This means the opportunity for those involved in the complaint to address their colleagues, as well as deliberations, would all take place behind closed doors.

The meeting’s agenda said one of the reasons for withholding information was necessary to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the protection of such members, officers, employees and persons from improper pressure or harassment.

The report itself is also being kept from the public until the conclusion of the meeting, despite it being paid for with ratepayer money.

In the meantime, the Herald has learned the report found Foster’s behaviour breached the council’s code of conduct because what he did was capable of undermining public confidence in the office to which he has been elected.

One of the recommendations is that a letter be written to formally censure Foster.

Councillor Jenny Condie complained last year about how Foster acted the morning of a controversial meeting to decide on whether to sell and lease council-owned land at Shelly Bay.

She said Foster showed her information he did not have permission to share and was potentially defamatory to a former council employee.

Wellington City Council’s approach to handling the decision making around these findings is significantly different from how Hutt City Council recently handled a code of conduct issue.

Councillor Chris Milne breached the council’s code of conduct after an investigation found he tried to influence a land deal involving a tennis facility his wife is president of.

The council released the report by former Ombudsman Leo Donnelly along with the agenda for an extraordinary council meeting, which outlined the matter.

The meeting lasted seven gruelling hours.

The first part was conducted in public when Milne had the opportunity to make his case to his colleagues.

Then councillors thrashed out the consequences for Milne’s actions behind closed doors on the grounds they should be allowed to have free and frank discussion.

Importantly, the meeting was then reopened to the public where the decisions were explained along with the rationale for them.

Transparency should be Wellington City Council’s default position.

Withholding an independent report about Foster’s behaviour in his capacity as mayor is not transparent.

The report was undertaken by an independent person for the very reason of allowing a high degree of natural justice to take place.

The document should be allowed to stand on its merits in the public domain.

In this case, at least one of the parties involved, Condie, has also argued the meeting next week should be held in public.

Condie said the reason she levelled the complaint against Foster in the first place was to bring transparency to potentially improper behaviour that occurred behind closed doors.

“As sunlight is the best disinfectant, I believe that result of this investigation should be discussed publicly.”

Condie said the same principle in the Ombudsman’s recent ruling on Woolf’s complaint should also apply in this instance.

Councillors have to vote on whether to exclude the public from any part of a meeting, so there is still an opportunity to act in the interests of ratepayers and meet the public gaze.

Wellingtonians rightfully have a high expectation of transparency around the conduct of elected members and equally, how their money is spent.

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