Wellington Scoop

Confusion about the Library

by Helene Ritchie
The Wellington City Council is very confused. The mayor and councillors don’t seem to know what they resolved at the Council meeting yesterday. I hesitate to say this, but it is evident that they don’t know what they are doing.

A speciality of Councillor Foster over his years on the Council was to drop last minute amendments, of his own creation, into the annual and long term plans and in the confusion that resulted, some passed.

That was when he was a councillor. Now he is mayor and he is still presenting last minute amendments – 11 to his own draft report at yesterday’s Council meeting. One was on the future of the library, without sufficient notice or professional advice to his colleagues (or to the public.).

Mayor Foster said at the meeting: “The idea was good governance. You can create a controversy if you want but that will be because it suits politically, not because it is good governance.”

Far from good governance, the result is confusion amongst councillors and the public as to what exactly they voted on. It will be left to staff to decide – that is to “work out”- what the wording means.

This is unacceptable.

As I wanted to be clear before I wrote these comments against privatisation of this public asset, I asked councillors (and one or two key officers) what the wording was that Council voted on.

I have received replies so far from one officer, and three councillors. Confusion is obvious.

The first councillor who voted with 6 others against the mayor’s proposal, gave me the wording, of his amendment:

“This is literally all we got.” (From the mayor)

(d) 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 …

This is plainly nonsensical. But from that worded amendment, the media somehow extrapolated that half the library building is to be privatised and that that was what was voted on.

The second councillor, who voted with nine others for the mayor’s proposal, has replied,

“There were so many amendments coming at us from all directions that I can’t actually find it online. I’ve asked Dem Services to let me have the actual wording. I’ll forward it to you once they provide me with it.”

The third councillor who voted for the mayor’s proposal, had said at the meeting, “It was almost incomprehensible”.

He replied to me:

“It was not to ‘sell’. I don’t have it (the resolution) to hand – it’s buried in the paper …. the idea is to maybe rent space out…”

So there you have it so far. Alarming confusion over the funding of this now major project. This is deplorable.

It is terrible governance and decision-making around a highly complex project which is scheduled to cost over $200 million and take any number of years of cost and time overruns. This at a time when Council is faced with significant other (pipes etc) expenses.

Clarity and specificity are needed.

I reiterate the position I have had from the outset. Fix the building. Do the overdue maintenance. Retrofit it and re-open it. (Fixing was recommended 8 years ago by reputable engineers, in a report which was never sent to councillors, which I discovered last year.)

I believe (from the Council evidence presented to the public during the last consultations), that this is the only option affordable and achievable in a timely fashion. It would see the library re-opened at the earliest opportunity.

Privatisation of this public asset is unacceptable. The library project has to be affordable, and the building should remain a public amenity in public ownership. The Council and the Council Chamber should return to the Civic Centre and be housed in the upper floors. Our Civic Centre should be returned to its status as the heart of our civic and council functions.

Helene Ritchie, then deputy mayor, chaired the Council Project which resulted in our Civic Centre, and which included the Athfield-designed Central Library.

Read also:
The Library and the value of knowledge


  1. Andrew, 19. February 2021, 15:22

    What’s the procedure for invoking a no confidence vote on the council and how do the citizens of Wellington kick the procedure off?

  2. John Klimenko, 19. February 2021, 16:14

    Helene, this Council appears to operate on a minimum of information, kept in a state of confusion in reports by officers not always providing a balanced perspective on issues in some instances by the introduction of “word salad” to hide the real intent. As you correctly assert, clarity is missing! Not only does it appear that there may be factions within the elected representatives, but also possibly an officer led faction as well. This is evidenced by senior managers failing to advise the Council of the findings of the first building assessment on the library. A copy of this report is in my possession following an OIA, however I do not have a response to my request for Council officer reports on the Library building issues. I can only assume that this is deliberate. I now sincerely believe that the only way to resolve this is by replacing the elected representatives with Commissioners and also that Statutory Managers be appointed to replace senior management.

  3. Hel, 19. February 2021, 19:28

    If what Helene has included is in fact the wording of the amendment, then I am questioning my own intelligence as I have no idea what that is meant to say. Resolutions of Council should be tightly worded, clear in their direction and not open to interpretation. The one identified by Helene fails on all counts. What on earth is going on here and what are the executive doing? Surely they provide advice regarding the wording of resolutions and amendments or are they asleep at the wheel.

  4. Conor, 19. February 2021, 19:42

    Hel – there were 11 amendments worded similarly. It is unbelievable that any councillors voted to approve these as they are functionally illegible.

  5. Helene Ritchie, 19. February 2021, 20:04

    Hel. I now have had it confirmed by three councillors, (and the Minutes are available online on the Council website). The wording of the two amendments that impacted our libraries, by the Mayor were:
    “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.”

    “Reduce library materials collection by $1M per year in years 1-2.”

    I agree with your comments and concerns.

  6. Diane Calvert, 19. February 2021, 20:05

    Helene – you are misrepresenting the situation. For any readers, here is the link to the agenda, minutes and the meeting. The proposed LTP budget is estimating a 14% rates increase (that is before the additional costs voted on by Councillors which in general I don’t support). There was insufficient funds available in the suggested timeframe so the Mayor’s option of a public private partnership helps in getting the library rebuilt. Council still owns the land and the library component. Commercial office space will be sold to earn much needed revenue. A pragmatic solution.

    Councillors were able to ask questions on aspects of the paper before and at the mtg. The Mayor also gave a briefing as part of introducing the paper. I was very clear on what we had before us and the decision required. The main thrust of the paper was planned capital expenditure over the next 10 yrs and the impacts on our debt level and first year rates. More details will be included at the meeting scheduled for 4 March when we sign off on our draft public consultation document outlining the 10 yr budget.

  7. Toni, 19. February 2021, 20:29

    Is the Council coming back to Civic Square, as that is the logical and best place for it. But, given the drive to sell off as much as possible, will the council end up paying private enterprise rent for what once belonged to them?

  8. Joanne Perkins, 19. February 2021, 20:46

    I’m sorry Councillor Calvert but your 180 degree turn on the Shelly Bay sale/lease hasn’t given anyone any confidence in anything you say, regardless of your manifold ‘justifications’. Perhaps if you had kept your word, a word that was at least partially responsible for your election, you might have more people willing to accept what you say now at face value. If there was an election tomorrow I doubt you would make the cut.

  9. Hel, 19. February 2021, 20:49

    I am sorry Diane but the threshold is not whether you understood what you had before you. That amendment is simply lacking in terms of providing any clear indication of what it means, it should not be open to interpretation or reliant on a recollection of the meeting. I have zero idea what milestone contracting means, do you?

  10. michael, 19. February 2021, 21:20

    How can a council vote on amendments that have not been properly researched and documented so everyone understands what it is they are voting for. I cannot imagine how the public are expected to provide submissions, when councillors appear to be confused about what they are doing.

  11. Dave B, 19. February 2021, 22:35

    Is the basic problem this: That every time a council building is identified as needing significant earthquake strengthening, certain councillors/officers see this as a golden opportunity for a headline-grabbing rebuild-project or full-on redevelopment which is way beyond the basic requirement to strengthen? Then in order to get the idea accepted, figures are fudged and facts are hidden to ‘justify’ the favoured option over the strictly-necessary one. And the prize for success? Another feather in some councillor’s cap for another vanity project we didn’t need and all at the ratepayer’s expense.
    That’s how it looks to me.

  12. Helene Ritchie, 20. February 2021, 8:16

    Yes Dave B that is part of the problem – vanity projects. However this building has never received a formal earthquake prone notification. The Council has perpetuated this myth. So have some of the media.

    The library does need some fixing at about a third of the $200 million cost. These lesser costs were given in the last consultation but the Council chose the ‘nice to have’ highly complex option with significant overrun risk.

    The key problems in the building that need fixing are the same as those identified 8 years ago along with regular maintenance. With the basic fix cost given by Council, there are added modernising/retrofit costs.

    If the Council opted for the fix-retrofit-reopen option it would not need to privatise part of it.. but the mayor and some councillors seem wedded to privatising – ‘giving away’ public assets for vanity, political philosophy or whatever other reason.

  13. Geoff, 20. February 2021, 9:21

    I’m with Andrew on this (first comment):

    What’s the procedure for invoking a no confidence vote on the council and how do the citizens of Wellington kick the procedure off?

  14. Peter Kerr, 20. February 2021, 11:05

    Organizing a rates strike might be a start. The compromise would be the appointment of a commission for a set-period. Citizens would resume rate paying, once a commission was established, knowing there was a disinterested neutral party doing the salvage work.

  15. Conor, 20. February 2021, 11:56

    Diane, Andy or any other councillor who voted for it, can you please explain what is meant by “Reduce Unscheduled Infrastructure Renewals budget by $25 million over 9 of the 10 years”.

  16. Sarah Free, 20. February 2021, 17:52

    Actually I’d rather keep the library in public ownership and lease out some of the floors, it may be possible to include that as a model. All we have said is we should explore the options. BTW, Council itself and libraries are currently in private buildings for what it’s worth. [via twitter]

  17. Meredith, 20. February 2021, 18:35

    They shouldn’t be! One of the temporary ones – Brandon St – has been formally identified as earthquake prone hasn’t it, whereas the barricaded Central Library has never been.
    Johnsonville library/Waitohi is owned by you and me. It is a public building! Newtown, Brooklyn, Khandallah, Wadestown?

    Are you one of The Confused on Council?

    The Council should return to The Civic Centre.

  18. Ray Chung, 20. February 2021, 20:30

    Sarah, you’ve made a very good point that the council offices and popup libraries are in private buildings. I consider that some people are fixated on having to own the buildings that they’re in. The WCC has a more reliable and regular guaranteed cash flow than most businesses. There will always be rates coming in ensuring that the council always has adequate money for OPEX. Just look at the banks and supermarkets as examples of businesses who have sold properties and leased them back. The big problem with this council is how many have business experience? It seems to me that the majority have only government or union experience where there is no emphasis on budgets, business justification or writing business cases. We have councillors who know they’ll be voting according to their party affiliation or ideology. Yes please, I agree with Peter, Geoff and Andrew so let’s get the ball rolling on getting a commissioner in to replace both the councillors and management. I would say that most of us voted this council in not knowing what we were getting and what they stood for but then as we’ve seen, they change their views once they’re elected and forget their pre-election promises.
    This council has just passed a motion from Laurie Foon to spend an additional $45 million on cycleways. It’s not a question of whether this is a good use of ratepayers’ money; there should be an immediate freeze on new spending while the council is in this financial crisis! This alone is a good enough reason to get a commissioner in. When the councillors are seated around the table discussing where the money is going to come from, some of them are sitting in a world of their own, dreaming up new ways of spending ratepayers money.

  19. Northland, 21. February 2021, 8:26

    Yes @Ray the Council are truly a spendthrift bunch. No idea how to save money. And an attitude of ‘well the ratepayers will pay for it…’. Advice: review Council spending. Cut down on expensive consultants. Remove nice to have projects and don’t actively advertise and recruit for useless ‘make-work’ jobs

  20. TrevorH, 21. February 2021, 9:40

    @ Ray Chung: I think there is a lot of support for dismissing this Council and appointing commissioners. Do we need to start a petition to the government?

  21. Claire, 21. February 2021, 10:53

    Sarah. WCC needs to take ownership of the fact that they are preparing to ask for as much as a 14% rates rise. This would be by far the highest increase in NZ. Auckland is asking only 5% and they have been hit much harder by covid. We need a line by line attempt to save money. If Phil Goff can do it, WCC can also. Also the Library building is neither here nor there; as long as it’s run by the WCC it does NOT matter who owns the building. And please sell the Convention Centre ASAP.

  22. Concerned Wellingtonian, 22. February 2021, 6:56

    Claire, what should be sold is the Convention Centre. Councillors have shown they are happy to do such a thing in principle. Please help them do this in practice.

  23. Ms green, 22. February 2021, 9:53

    Superficially this seems like a good idea – to sell the Convention Centre. However in practice it may not be, if the sale of waterfront land is a guide – where Willis Bond, for a “song”, have been able to purchase long term (125 year etc.) leases (defined in law as a sale.) Willis Bond might be eager to buy again for a song – with the Council eager to sell in a fire sale.
    Good idea? The Convention Centre was never a good idea and was always going to be a big call on ratepayers, as one councillor warned at the time.

  24. Claire, 22. February 2021, 10:00

    Concerned Wellingtonian: I would be happy to vote for them to sell the Convention Centre. It is a contractual matter so legal beagles would need to untangle and decide whether selling now or when actually completed would be better. I see Fleur has contacted the Auditor General regarding the Library. Let’s hope they have a look through everything that the council has been doing. And help to find the savings that are needed.

  25. Cicada Chirp, 22. February 2021, 10:08

    I’d like to that this opportunity to remind our Labour councillors that it was their mayor who shut the Library and championed the Convention Centre. You know, the guy they wish had beaten Andy Foster, who is trying to re-open the Library ASAP.

  26. Fleur Fitzsimons, 22. February 2021, 11:06

    I have asked the Auditor General to investigate the last-minute decision to consult on selling the Wellington Central Library because there is no going back once the building is sold. The Library is too important to fall victim to a flippant, last-minute flip flop. [via twitter]

  27. Claire, 22. February 2021, 11:36

    My understanding is that the actual Library and running of it would stay with the WCC. Only the other part of the building would be sold or rented out. This is very far from privatising the actual Library. But WCC doesnt need to own buildings. Especially when money is short ie Convention Centre.

  28. Jim Candiliotis, 22. February 2021, 12:18

    Fleur, finally a comment that holds water but first a comment on most of the comments made.
    Nothing has changed since Fran Wilde’s day. Officials still mislead councillors, councillors mislead each other and they ALL have agendas. The no confidence vote comes every three years, but still the same numptys get in. But as the saying goes “even when the public are wrong, they’re right, because that’s democracy. Regarding my ‘holds water’ comment, right track, wrong authority. Have a good read of the Ombudsmen’s Act read in conjunction with The Local Government and Official Information and Meetings Act.

  29. Jim Candiliotis, 22. February 2021, 12:51

    Oh I forgot an important piece “and they all mislead the public”.

  30. Keith Flinders, 22. February 2021, 13:29

    Another pragmatic solution would be to reduce the income of elected councillors to that of a single fixed-income retiree paying the average rates bill who out of $425 a week will have to spend about a week’s income annually just on the proposed rates increase, let alone the effects of rising household inflation. This compounded with virtually zero interest being paid on term deposits, etc., is a double hit for those tied to fixed incomes. Councillors might then appreciate the value of money and stop wasting ours. I suggest that their expertise currently being illustrated in matters financial, as related to that they are being paid, sees ratepayers being taken for a ride.

    It seems to me the councillors are failing in their duty when they don’t know that council officers are taking rates money collected for specific purposes and spending it on frivolities. In private industry this would be classed as fraud.

    I have yet to hear of a “razor gang” being given full authority to examine which council functions can be dispensed with and where staff costs can be dramatically reduced. If Auckland can tackle their financial issues, then so can Wellington. Having recently visited the new administration facility in the expensive heart of the CBD, I was able to see that no expense was spared in the fit-out and exceedingly generous space allocations given to employees. At the time of my visit, mid morning, less then a quarter of the desks were occupied.

  31. Jim Candiliotis, 22. February 2021, 15:21

    Keith. WCC pensioners, in fact all beneficiaries in the WCC area, get the same as the rest of NZ. Compare your rates bill with a similar valued home in Porirua, Kapiti or Lower Hutt, it may surprise you. You should also have a look at the Local Government Act 2002 and amendments – it will clarify exactly what councils must supply. As for a razor gang, I would start with playgrounds, sportsfields, libraries, community centers community safety officers, all needless extravagances because I don’t use them …. but somebody must.

  32. Keith Flinders, 23. February 2021, 11:03

    Jim: Not disagreeing with you in respect of what other areas are lumbering their fixed and low income citizens with, but what all councils must be cognisant of is the ability to afford to pay for frivolities. When I addressed the WCC LTP committee in 2014 they suggested such people ought to take out a loan to make up the shortfall. Something my 90 year old friend who has been retired for 30 years, and seen her savings eroded away by inflation, has sleepless nights over.

    The rating system doesn’t take into account how many reside in a dwelling to share such costs. Should it ?

    Turning sports grounds into housing developments would bring handfuls of much needed cash into the WCC coffers, however it would take a brave person to front such a radical idea !

  33. Jim. Candiliotis, 23. February 2021, 15:28

    Keith, regarding your question, I personally don’t like the idea of a “poll tax” nor do I like the idea of turning sports fields into housing developments. Both have outcomes that would be distasteful to my personal beliefs.
    I think one of the biggest problems are officers pushing personal agendas, be it what was taught at uni or anywhere else, and convincing councillors that “this is the only way forward”. Eg the last ceo, current and past city planners. But at the end of the day it’s councillors for not asking the right questions. Those who have done this are attacked by senior management, mayors and councillors alike.

  34. Keith Flinders, 23. February 2021, 19:53

    Jim: A poll credit for single occupancy dwellings could be linked to current databases for pension and welfare payments in the case of hardship. I repeat my main thrust which is about affordability.

    Expecting the councillors to ask the right questions when the staff employed are more street wise than they are is a lost cause. Councils in the old days seem to have employed more able management, and the councillors were involved with governance, not management, to ensure ratepayers’ funds were properly spent. Well that is how it seemed on the surface.

    Do we need a new local government system, I think so.

  35. Claire, 23. February 2021, 21:57

    People on superannuation are currently entitled to rates rebate of around $500 a year. That would be engulfed if we have a 14% rates rise.

  36. Jim. Candiliotis, 24. February 2021, 13:06

    No Keith, we don’t need a new local government system. It’s not broken. What we need are CEOs and officers who are not using the job as a stepping stone to further their careers, councillors who see it as a service to the city and not as school before moving into national politics, governments that don’t keep passing crap on councils to sort out, and citizens who don’t have their hand out for every pet project going. An example of a really good council is Upper Hutt. Their LTP is great. Readable and easy to understand. Supported by good policy and facts that are supported by good research that has been costed and checked.

  37. Ray Chung, 25. February 2021, 13:58

    Some very good comments from everyone here. Jim, personally, I think a poll tax instead of rates being assessed on property values is a fair system but I can’t see it ever being seriously considered here. Andrew and Geoff, I’d like to see a commissioner being brought in to sort out this imbroglio of a council but I can’t see Mahuta doing that as it’s all her party members who are causing a lot of the friction. Conor, I agree that that statement could have been written clearer but I could understand it OK after reading it carefully. I think that Andy needs to be given credit for trying to save money out of the burgeoning budget blow-out that we have. Do you see any councillors helping to make these cuts? Do you have any suggestions on how we could reduce the budget to balance? Keith makes a very good point about no-one in the council even looking at how to reduce their excesses! I also agree with Keith that many of our councillors have no concept of the value of money and would support a reduction of their stipend so we get candidates who truly want to do something to help make Wellingtonian’s lives better and not just there for the money or questionable glory.

  38. D'Esterre, 26. February 2021, 10:28

    Helene Ritchie: “Fix the building. Do the overdue maintenance. Retrofit it and re-open it. (Fixing was recommended 8 years ago by reputable engineers, in a report which was never sent to councillors, which I discovered last year.)” I agree. The reason the building was closed in the first place was because the floor connections need to be remediated. WCC can afford to do this. If the budget is tight, the Council should do essential maintenance and defer a retrofit until the budget allows it. And: reopen the building!

    Jim. Candiliotis: exactly: your comments are spot on. Interesting about UHCC showing others how it’s done. WCC take note.

  39. Richard Keller, 26. February 2021, 18:57

    The DomPost editorial (25/02) describing the city council as an ‘unruly class’ is an embarrassment, and only serves to avoid the most important factor in the current nonsense about an “independent review”. The council staff is the greatest collection of neo-liberal influencers in the city and they were never going to accept the more forward-looking council majority elected at the last election promoting the primacy of the concept of the ‘public good’ which the council staff has been trying to destroy, most openly in regards to the Central Library. And now the question of where the urgency had been lost over the water infrastructure is getting too close to them. The realization of fundamental cultural changes necessary to combat climate change is undergirding this collision. In joining the attack on the new left /green councillors, the Mayor, right wing councillors, and the co-opted Deputy Mayor, are willing to expose a desperation in order to deflect the determination of the left / green councillors to press forward on those issues.

  40. Helene Ritchie, 27. February 2021, 19:53

    Here is a link for those who are interested in sound arguments against privatisation of the Central Library building. It is an open letter written by leading literary figures expressing concern about part privatisation of the library building and the cuts, both proposed by mayor Andy Foster as last minute amendments and passed by the Council.

  41. Hel, 27. February 2021, 21:33

    Richard, I think you have a point regarding the role Council staff play in the dysfunction of the City Council. However I don’t think it has anything to do with a collection of neo liberal influencers, I think it is more a case of the senior staff having little real experience and lacking in any genuine connection or interest in Wellington. The review needs to consider the quality of advice and information provided by staff otherwise it will only be a behavioural review that will conclude some councillors act childishly.