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Investigation of Library decision; request to Auditor-General

Letter from Cr Fleur Fitzsimons to the Auditor-General
Dear Mr Ryan,
I am a Wellington City Councillor with portfolio responsibility for libraries. I request that you investigate a rather irregular resolution made by the Council’s Annual Plan/Long Term Plan Committee meeting on 18 February regarding the future of the Wellington Central Library building. The Annual Plan/Long Term Plan Committee is a committee of the Wellington City Council.

The resolution that was agreed to is as follows:

“Library costs condensed into years 3 and 4 rely on partnering or milestone contracting/ financing noting that these options will be included in the preferred option in the Consultation Document.”

The resolution directly contradicts a previous decision made at a Council meeting on 21 July 2020 which was agreed, after substantial debate about whether the Council should partner with the private sector. That resolution is the following with emphasis added:

“Note that officers will explore what ideas and approaches the building construction sector may be able to contribute to enhancing outcomes and/or reducing the costs of the five options though an Expression of Interest process to be reported back to the Strategy and Policy Committee on 22 October 2020 while maintaining council ownership of the building.”

After the July 2020 resolution was passed, the Council proceeded to use its Special Consultative Procedure pursuant to Section 83 of the Local Government Act 2002 to consult residents about the future of the Central Library.

A Special Consultative Procedure was used to ensure that, when it came to adoption of the Long Term Plan for the financial year starting July 2021, the consultation work including the presenting of options for the future of the Central Library had already occurred and construction contracts could be signed immediately after the Long Term Plan was adopted by the Council. This was a deliberate decision to ensure that work could begin on the Central Library as soon as possible without an amendment to the previous LTP.

The Special Consultative Procedure was a thorough and extensive process as the Local Government Act 2002 demands. Legal advice was sought throughout the process to ensure that it met the requirements of the Act.

The Statement of Proposal required by Section 83(1)(b) of the Local Government Act 2002 explicitly provided that the Central Library building would remain in Council ownership consistent with the Council’s July 2020 resolution, it provided:

The Council is required to be prudent and to be open to alternative approaches to funding Council projects. We will explore what ideas and approaches the building sector may be able to contribute to enhancing outcomes and/or reducing the costs of the five options, whilst maintaining Council ownership of the building, through an Expression of Interest process.

During the Special Consultative Procedure, a number of meetings and drop-in sessions were held for residents across Wellington. At some of these, members of the public asked questions about whether the Council would sell the Building and were advised that this would not occur given the Council resolution to maintain Council ownership.

The ownership of the Building had been a matter of significant public interest in Wellington and no doubt impacted on the response from residents during the consultation process as well as the decision of the Council on 21 July 2020.

Background to the 18 February 2021 Annual Plan/Long Term Plan Committee

Wellington City Councillors were not provided with the Mayor’s resolution regarding the new approach to the future of the Central Library building prior to the meeting on 18 February nor were we provided with any supporting material, legal advice or financial analysis about the proposed resolution and its impact on the results of the Special Consultative Procedure that had been carried out.

The only information sent to Councillors prior to the meeting was a difficult-to-comprehend email from the Mayor on February 16 at 8:55pm.

I replied to that email asking how the changes to the publicly notified agenda would be made available to the public given the statutory requirements of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 and asking for the matters to be expanded on and explained and asking where they had come from.

The Mayor replied inter alia that there is “nothing particularly material to these changes.”

I attended a meeting with five senior Council officers and the Mayor about the progress with the Central Library Building on the morning of 17 February.

During this meeting, reference was made to the plans to develop more space in the Central Library Building, but no reference was made to any possible change in the ownership of the Building.

I contacted the Council’s Chief Executive, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer and the Mayor on the evening of 17 February asking for information about what was being proposed for the Library at the meeting of the Council committee the next day.

The Chief Financial Officer of the Council replied later that evening spelling out a proposal in brief terms. In this email, the proposal to sell part of the Library Building is outlined for the first time.

The Annual Plan/Long Term Plan Committee Meeting of 18 February 2021

The next day during the meeting of the Annual Plan/Long Term Plan, Councillors were provided with a Powerpoint presentation from the Mayor and he made some comments about the proposal regarding the Library.

There was no other written information, policy advice, financial analysis or legal advice about this proposal from the Mayor or Council officers.

It was clear that some Councillors did not understand the implications of what was being proposed and raised concerns that the approach from the Mayor went against the principles of good governance.

After the Mayor’s presentation but during the meeting, I directly asked the Council’s Chief Executive whether a formal motion to rescind the previous decision that the Council had made regarding ownership of the Central Library building was necessary. She confirmed this would need to occur.

I was mindful that the previous decision about ownership was made by the full Council as opposed to a committee of the Council and has been subject to a Special Consultative Procedure with residents.

After a series of questions from Councillors about this and the other last-minute resolutions, the meeting was adjourned to allow Council officers time to prepare the Mayor’s formal resolution and for it to be provided to Councillors for the first time. The resolutions to be put by the Mayor were clearly not written in time for the meeting.

Once Councillors did receive the written resolutions the Mayor was introducing, there was no formal notice to rescind the previous resolution of the Council regarding the ownership of the Central Library building. I questioned this given the outlined position earlier in the meeting from the CEO that this would need to occur.

The Council then received legal advice from the Council’s solicitor who addressed the meeting.

The solicitor incorrectly claimed that the Council had not included information about the Council owning the Central Library Building in the Statement of Proposal materials during the Special Consultative Procedure process and that in her opinion a formal notice to rescind was therefore not necessary. This is not correct; the consultation document did include reference to the Council continuing to own the Building consistent with the July 2020 resolution.

The Chief Executive and the Council’s solicitor were under immense pressure given the last-minute nature of the Mayor’s amendments so it is entirely understandable that the advice was not consistent with the role of the Annual Plan/Long Term Plan Committee as a subordinate committee of the Council or the statutory requirements around the use of Special Consultative Procedures.

The basis of the request for you to investigate

The Wellington City Council is now left in a situation where an important decision about the future ownership of the Central Library has been made by a subordinate committee contrary to a decision of the Council itself and without any attempt to rescind the decision of the Council.

This is deeply problematic in many ways.

Council officers are currently preparing a very challenging Long Term Plan for consultation based on a decision that the Annual Plan/Long Term Plan Committee did not have authority to make without formally rescinding the motion of the Council. This raises questions of legality and consistency with the Council’s own Standing Orders.

If the Council does not attempt to rescind the decision, we will be in uncharted waters when it comes to the legality of subsequent decisions including the upcoming Long Term Plan itself.

Clause 30 of Schedule 7 of the Local Government Act 2002 is clear.

It provides that committees of the Council are subordinate decision-making bodies and cannot override decisions of the Council, yet this is what the Annual Plan/Long Term Plan Committee is attempting to do here.

The eight elements of good governance on your website – which include setting out a clear purpose and sticking to it, leading using a constructive tone and ensuring that there are good systems, information and controls – have not been complied with in this process.

The entire approach goes against the previous decision of the Council, is unclear, has not been subject to scrutiny, financial analysis or risk analysis and needs to be investigated and resolved.

I do not support selling the Central Library building as I consider it will undermine attempts to change the building and Library service in the future and be unduly expensive and risky. However this is not the point. I accept that the Council could theoretically sell the Building but I cannot see how the current process is legally sound or consistent with the principles of good governance.

I request that you investigate whether the Wellington City Council has failed to comply with the Local Government Act 2002 and whether it has failed to comply with the elements of good governance including the requirement to have sufficient information and analysis and provide the Council with guidance about how to address or rectify this matter.

Further, I request that you provide Councillors and the Council’s Executive Leadership Team with training about good governance.

I have provided a copy of this letter to the Council’s Chief Executive and the Mayor.

I would be happy to discuss these matters if this would be of assistance.

Yours sincerely,
Fleur Fitzsimons
Councillor with portfolio responsibility for libraries

Read also:
Mayor’s Library plans bring criticism from some councillors

10 comments:

  1. Helene Ritchie, 23. February 2021, 13:56

    This is damning of the Council but more particularly of the mayor and his last-minute personal nonsensical amendment. It is the first time I have seen the content of Cr Fitzsimons’ letter. Much of Cr Fitzsimons’ thorough account was not known to the public before. As a member of the public now, but as a former deputy mayor, City Councillor and chair of the Civic project which included the library, I have some significant understanding of Council process, good governance and the library closure.

    I have major concerns about the evident poor governance and the future of a major asset the Wellington Central Library. I too had written to the Auditor General covering some of what is here and some other points. I find it insulting to me and the vast number of public who made submissions for the mayor to say my action is ‘purely political.’

     
  2. TrevorH, 23. February 2021, 16:29

    “Good governance training”? Were we not led to believe back in 2019 we were electing people who offered such skills? In any case I think that train has well and truly now left the station.

     
  3. Toni, 23. February 2021, 16:55

    Unfortunately, many people think more about unrealistic promises than the skills required to run a major business effectively and efficiently when electing their council representatives. And unfortunately, not many people who have those skills or background stand for council.

     
  4. Claire, 23. February 2021, 17:29

    I think there have been multiple problems at the council, from bad behaviour on twitter to infighting and political bloc forming. Reliance on political ideology rather than representing the people of Wellington is prevalent. Someone has to lead; is the Mayor able to do that? Or is he being undermined? He pushed a few things through successfully. If it saves money then that is what I want him to do. Maybe he hasn’t followed the exact process. The Auditor General will tell us.

     
  5. Ray Chung, 23. February 2021, 21:39

    I’m all for the auditor-general investigating the WCC but I’d like him to investigate the childish squabbles and behaviour of this council and consider appointing a commissioner.

    Yes, Trevor, Toni and Claire, this council have no idea what governance is, much less have the skills and experience to effect it. They continue spending to pander to their own ideologies with no concern for ratepayers.

    If Fleur is so concerned about selling council assets to private enterprise, how did she vote when the council decided to sell their land at Shelley Bay to Ian Cassels?

     
  6. Toni, 23. February 2021, 21:43

    It really annoys me that political party affiliations play such a big part of council business. I do not vote for a political party manifest when voting for council representatives. I want what is best for Wellington City, but unfortunately too many of them allow their personal and political agendas to get in the way. This group seem to be particularly bad in this respect, hence a lot of the squabbling and discord.

     
  7. jamie, 24. February 2021, 5:49

    Good governance is debate, discussion and agreement on a strategic direction. Do they not realise that the LTP process is the budget and you can’t just keep whacking ratepayers if the numbers don’t work. Party politics needs exorcising from the council, some councillors are too busy adhering to the party doctrine instead of representing their communities. Look at the grief Sarah Free is getting for being pragmatic rather than blindly following party lines. I’d add that there’s no way the minister will call in a commissioner when it’s her own party’s councillors causing the drama.

     
  8. David Mackenzie, 24. February 2021, 10:18

    As a decision making body, the Council apparently is in the habit of making totally indecipherable resolutions, to the point of being completely opaque. I am appalled that anyone capable of producing such dross, should hold elected office.

     
  9. Ray Chung, 24. February 2021, 10:47

    Hi Fleur, I’ve been thinking about this and it seems to me that Andy isn’t very good at writing these amendments and I can understand that there’s some ambiguity in them but these could and should have been debated so that they were clarified. However, I’m not implying that Andy should be sent on a course on how to write succinctly! It does seem to me though that at least Andy is trying to find ways of saving money which is more than I can say for the rest of the councillors. Is there a single councillor who has come out with a proposal on how the city can save some money? Please don’t include Sarah Free’s article in the DomPost that she could have pushed for her preferred option of spending an additional $200 million on cycle paths but because she was cognisant of the budget crisis; she opted to support Laurie Foon’s motion to only spend an additional $45 million on cycleways. This is just like saying that the proposed rates increase is 23% but we’re going to try really, really hard to reduce the increase to 14%! Yeah right!

    Regarding the active debate at council meetings, I’ve been informed by multiple sources that instead of paying attention at council meetings and particularly when Andy is speaking, many councillors continuously text each other giggling like schoolkids with some using personal phones as well as the council ones so that the council doesn’t have a record of these text messages. Is it any wonder that so many of us have scant confidence in this council?

     
  10. TrevorH, 24. February 2021, 11:56

    The pity of it is that a Labour Minister of Internal Affairs will never dismiss this Council and appoint Commissioners because so many Councillors are card carrying Labour Party members. Wellington is stuck until the next local elections.