Lobbying and the Rotorua Council

 

Muddy Waters

The now-discredited Rotorua Green Corridor through the city is just the latest manifestation of a system allowing anybody promoting costly ideas to front up to unrecorded initial meetings with council officials.

The Mud has found that Rotorua Lakes Council officers don’t necessarily keep records of initial meetings with those approaching the council regarding projects, which may or may not include proposals including council assistance and ratepayers’ money.

The $442,000 cost of the Green Corridor project was split between the council and the NZ Transport Agency and developed with the Cycle Action Rotorua and the Inner City Focus Group; the latter a local business ginger-group set up to help propel the council into sprucing up the CBD in 2015.

Three years on, and the Hemo Gorge sculpture, Crankworx, the Lakefront, the Aquatic Centre, Mudtopia just to name a few … the list goes on of projects that have good intentions but also have cost increasingly large sums of money.

The demise of the Green Corridor and the costs not only to ratepayers but also to retailers in lost business highlights the need for a more robust approach to lobbying at the council.

The issue of lobbying councils has further been highlighted by news that former Labour Party president Mike Williams, recognised as New Zealand’s lowest profile but most influential lobbyist, had held meetings with Auckland Council regarding the introduction of the now-controversial Lime Scooters.

His involved raised questions about the roles recognised high-profile lobbyists such as Mike Williams played in local body decision.

The Mud wanted to find out how the Rotorua Lakes Council managed the process of engaging with individuals and enterprises proposing news, and costly, projects.

The council’s information sent to The Mud indicates that council and officers do not routinely keep records of initial meetings they have with businesses and others promoting what may turn out to be costly projects. 

The Mud inquired about which business representatives and lobbyists council staff and councillors had met in the past or are engaged with meeting. 

The inquiry noted The Mud was particularly interested, but not exclusively, in lobbyists on behalf of companies or other groups interested in engaging with or applying to the council.  The inquiry gave as examples: introducing scooters to Rotorua; the development of Mudtopia; and the Aquatic Centre. It also noted that the query was not exclusively for those examples but included the wider range of council work and activities.

The council supplied answers to questions, noting that the Aquatic Centre management and the delivery of Mudtopia were both initiated by the council – as a partnership for the Aquatic Centre and the concept of Mudtopia and were “put out to market”.

 

Explanation

The Council Chief Executive Office manager Craig Tiriana added an explanation about the processes involved.

“Business people council staff meet with seek information and guidance rather than lobbying the organisation.”

“They may be looking to undertake a development and will meet with consenting staff to discuss or assist them with the process to ensure they meet all requirements and it goes as smoothly as possible.”

He outlined how those seeking to start a business in Rotorua would seek from the council a range of information around lifestyle, land availability, along with the usual range of economic indicators.

“Council is sometimes approached by organisations and individuals with an idea or an initiative for which they would like support.  We do not keep a record of these meetings,” Tiriana said the meetings were often commercially sensitive, so the council was unable to provide a list of people or entities that staff and councillors had met in the past or were engaged with meeting currently.

In addition, we asked if the council had no guidelines for staff dealing with businesses, were they not then exposed to lobbying of the kind seen in Auckland over Lime scooters.

The council stated in reply: “We do not keep a list or register of these meetings and they are often commercially sensitive and/or confidential we’re unable to provide a list of names as you request.

“Many staff in the organisation deal with business people as part of their everyday duties and many of these meetings are of an inquiry nature and there may be others where staff go through the likes of consent or building applications with people if required or requested.”

 

Timelines

Following this up, The Mud queried the council over its statement that the Aquatic Centre and Mudtopia were “initiated by council and put out to market” as to whether that meant those involved were invited to do the job rather than the projects being put out to tender.

We also wanted to know if the council staff and councillors did not keep a record of meetings with businesses and others, how then did the council know what happened at the meetings.

The council provided a timeline of how both Mudtopia and the Aquatic Centre projects were managed.

In the case of Mudtopia, the council says Event Engine Ltd was engaged to manage it on its behalf “following a public tender process and reference checking”.

Regarding the Aquatic Centre, the council says: “The process and decision-making that was undertaken is well documented” and pointed The Mud to information on its web site. 

It also noted that about half of public aquatic centres were managed externally and so the council decided to explore this option when reviewing the facility.

Following a call for expressions of interest, a shortlist of providers was asked to submit detailed proposals, and the external provider was awarded the contract.

 

Note

An attempt to introduce a Lobbying Disclosure Bill to law was rejected in 2012.  The chair of the relevant committee explained that as well as some deficiencies in the bill, it was felt that existing measures were sufficient to regulate New Zealand’s “village” lobbying environment. (Regulating Lobbyists in New Zealand, Liam Alexander Williams, thesis, Victoria University 2014).

The fallout around a meeting between then Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran and Radio NZ’s Carol Hirschfeld highlighted the inherent dangers involved in apparently casual undocumented arrangements for meetings.

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