More excellent investigative reporting from Veronica Harrod
Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it superman? No, it’s a giant wrecking ball and its coming near you soon.
The public remain in the dark about plans by Horowhenua District Council to transfer up to 40 percent of public assets to the recently established property investment trust called Horowhenua NZ Trust.
The only item on the 6 June agenda to be discussed in a publicly excluded part of the meeting refers to “Legal Matters: Settlement Options – Historic Dispute” which, if this refers to the transfer of public assets, appears to be deliberately worded to hide council’s intention.
Council will discuss and vote on this item in a publicly excluded part of the meeting on the grounds, “The withholding of the information is necessary to enable the local authority to carry on, without prejudice or disadvantage, negotiations (including commercial and industrial negotiations).”
One of the big problems residents have is how the commercial confidential clauses of the Local Government Act deny the public opportunities to be a part of discussions in the public interest. Also, the public don’t know how councillors vote on publicly excluded matters or whether councillors have undeclared conflicts of interest.
It is the only clause of the Local Government Act available to council’s, who may be motivated by self and vested interest rather than public interest, because it allows council’s to side-step obligations to be transparent and accountable.
But when council’s get into bed with land and property developers to the extent this council has then serious concerns about how the commercial confidentiality clause of the Local Government Act is being used are justified.
The most glaring example of this was the sale of the former council owned pensioner housing portfolio to one of the biggest land and property developers in the country Willis Bond for a firesale price of $5.2 million resulting in a loss of $1.86 million.
The Office of the Auditor General is making a determination on this matter and conflicts of interest but, to put it mildly, residents aren’t holding their breathe that an investigation of any real merit will be pursued.
In a report on supporting the establishment of the Horowhenua NZ Trust economic development manager Shanon Grainger stated, “The Trust operates through a Trust Deed in standard fashion. That Deed holds trustees to account, trustees operate under the standard legislation and case law applying to trustees. This is a high level of accountability with sanctions and remedies.”
But the public don’t know how the Trust will operate because the Trust has not been legally registered, there is no Trust deed to refer to and who the specific directors are still has not been announced.
Mr Grainger also said the Trust model was, “explicitly detached from local government so that local government politicians are not compromised, and investors are not compromised.”
Yet members of council’s in-house economic development board are Trust directors in the first instance and three councillors are on the board including deputy chair of the economic development board councillor Wayne Bishop who is also the deputy mayor.
Compounding concerns is the fact Cr Bishop has three land and property development companies, and an extensive and growing number of Horowhenua land and property development projects, and the Trust is being assisted by the council’s chief executive David Clapperton who established a company classified under the land development/subdivision category in November 2016.
These facts alone appear to contradict Mr Grainger’s comment the Trust is “explicitly detached from local government.”
Not only has the council publicly stated it intends on transferring up to 40 percent of assets to the Trust but an unknown amount of ratepayer funds that council spends on “economic development” will also be funnelled to the Trust.
The only public comment made about how much council spends on “economic development” was a vague statement made by Mr Clapperton the dollar amount was unknown because it is within the Representation and Community Leadership budget of $4.1 million annually!
Plans by the council and the yet-to-be legally registered Horowhenua NZ Trust move relentlessly forward even though the public are being consulted on a myriad of plans and strategies that, if adopted in their present form, will unleash an explosive number of land and development, demolition and construction projects across the district.
Clearly though this trend of council’s getting into bed with land and property developers is undergoing a 21st Century renaissance. Listen to what is happening at New Plymouth District Council: “The council wants to sell part of Peringa Reserve – including half of a public golf course – to housing developers for $35 million. Opponents say it is protected recreational space and should be kept. RNZ Taranaki reporter Robin Martin has more.