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Debate on Central Library, after councillors told to keep quiet

Wellington.Scoop
The Wellington City Council meets this morning to take decisions about strengthening the Central Library, after a report that councillors received an email from the Mayor telling them not to express opinions about the Library.

The DomPost reports that it was sent a copy of the mayor’s email by Councillors Jill Day and Rebecca Matthews.

But then came a letter from law firm Simpson Grierson:

The Council requires you immediately to delete the email including any and all copies you have, either soft copy and hard copy format and included in your deleted items, and to confirm to us that you have done so.

Following the requirements of the legal letter, the DomPost has not published the mayoral email. However it did report comments from the councillors who had sent it:

“We are releasing this document because we don’t believe Wellingtonians want their councillors silenced,” a joint statement from Day and Matthews said. “We are confident that we are entitled to release this document and believe we had a duty to do so in the public interest.

“We are doing so in part because we do not wish to feel intimidated about commenting on the central library. Especially when it comes to an issue as important as their central library, residents should be able to hear what their local representatives think.

“ … We value the advice of our staff, but it is also our right and our duty as elected councillors to question it. Do ratepayers want to be paying for advice to stop us from talking?”

The DomPost reports that the mayoral email took exception to reported remarks by councillor Fleur Fitzsimons’ questioning why council staff had put forward the most-expensive, $200 million option, which had earlier been voted down by council. Cr Fitzsimons has the library portfolio.

At today’s meeting, Cr Fitzsimons wanted to table a different legal opinion saying her opinions could be freely expressed, but this was ruled out – with the mayor saying the subject could be covered at a later date. However the DomPost then reported:

The legal advice she attempted to table said her comments were in line with Local Government Act (LGA) obligations, which required councillors to be open and transparent about council decisions. “Far from breaching these obligations, public expression of concerns about the processes following council decisions would appear to uphold the principle of openness and transparency, and present an example of the council seeking to ensure that the relationship between elected members and management is understood,” lawyer Graeme Edgeler said.

Edgeler also expressed surprise the council had sought legal advice over Fitzsimons’ comments, describing the move as “unexpected”. The LGA also requires councillors to keep an open mind, but that did not prevent them expressing an opinion, Edgeler said. “The requirement is to have an open mind, not an empty mind.”

Wellington.Scoop has reported Cr Fitzsimons’ opinions in its coverage of the issue here and here. Councillors’ opinions have also been widely reported from an earlier meeting of the council where the Central Library was discussed. And the mayor himself, in an opinion piece published yesterday by Wellington.Scoop, acknowledged that there are a variety of possibilities being discussed – “every option has its pluses and minuses,” he wrote.

The council meeting can be viewed online here.

9 comments:

  1. Toni, 21. July 2020, 9:22

    You are damn right Councillors Day and Matthews. The last thing we expect is to have our elected representative silenced. Last I heard NZ was supposed to be a democratic society?
    Good on you – just a shame you haven’t had more support from the other “elected representatives”.

     
  2. Kara Lipski, 21. July 2020, 9:32

    Absolutely appalling! We elect councillors to debate issues on our behalf and we (the electors) do not expect the Mayor to behave in this manner. Just in case the Mayor misunderstands the basic premise of democracy, read this. Open communication is a necessary part of democracy and I applaud those councillors for recognising the need to continue to put the issue of the central library under the spotlight. If the Mayor wants to be a one term wonder he is going down the right track.

     
  3. Rebecca Matthews, 21. July 2020, 9:37

    I did not take this step lightly. But the idea that my colleagues and I should be intimidated against speaking out against say, privatising or demolishing the central library, and if we do speak out we could be prevented from voting is just anti democratic. [via twitter]

     
  4. Elizabeth Knox, 21. July 2020, 10:41

    Yes Andy Foster we do want to hear what your fellow city council members have to say about the library! [via twitter]

     
  5. TrevorH, 21. July 2020, 12:48

    Warmest congratulations to Nicola Young for being the only Councillor to vote “no” to the outrageous rates hike adopted today.

     
  6. Max Rashbrooke, 21. July 2020, 13:23

    Sure, there are things councillors shouldn’t say in public. Rants about individual staff members would be inappropriate, for instance. But commentary on core issues of public interest has to be protected. Waikato District Council recently tried to do more behind closed doors (though had to back down), on the loose basis that councillors disagreeing publicly was somehow bad or embarrassing. [via twitter]

     
  7. Brian Dawson, 21. July 2020, 15:42

    This is an extraordinary position for the mayor to take. I look forward to Andy recusing himself from every discussion about issues he has expressed his personal opinion on over 30 years – something he has expressly refused to do up til now. [via twitter]

     
  8. Michael Gibson, 21. July 2020, 15:50

    I emailed Rebecca Matthews (copy to Fleur Fitzsimons) at 6.48 this morning: “Unreserved congratulations on keeping your constituents informed through the DomPost. The same to Cr. Fleur Fitzsimons. This is exactly what you should be doing!” [The legal advice given to Cr Fitzsimons is reported here .]

     
  9. michael, 21. July 2020, 16:28

    Hopefully the rest of the councillors will read the legal advice given to Councillor Fitzsimons and start speaking out as well, or what is the point of having elected representatives?

     

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