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Leaked report shows efforts LGNZ making to protect poor performing councils

The Taxpayers’ Union has been provided a copy of a leaked report Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) commissioned. The report was prepared in response to work by the Taxpayers’ Union to improve transparency in local government. Earlier today Ratepayers’ Report – interactive local government league tables  launched at ratepayersreport.co.nz.

We've also been leaked confidential briefing papers for council CEOs. These appear to have been prepared by LGNZ's spin doctors as an aide for councils to avoid any criticism resulting from questions relating to Ratepayers' Report and other efforts by the Taxpayers' Union.

We approached LGNZ earlier in the year and sought its help to ensure New Zealanders got a fair picture of how their local council is doing. Instead, LGNZ went into defence mode and hired an accountancy firm originally to discredit the expert analyst we were using. They were not interested in ensuring ratepayers got an accurate picture, rather creating reasons why we shouldn’t be providing the public with the information.

Despite promising that the report would be made available to the Taxpayers’ Union, we’ve only seen it today because it was leaked to us. The report suggests that LGNZ is more interested in toeing the party line, rather than identifying the councils which are under-performing.

The report, by Grant Thornton, appears to have little basis for what they deem as ‘acceptable’ for the financial measures they apply to councils. They've not provided a league table, or a scoring system and even the data points on the graphs do not reference the councils they relate to.

It appears they’ve put in the data then picked the spot that shows that everyone is doing well.

The report makes soft criticisms of Kaipara District and Waitomo District Councils - but then defends them. It makes assertions that all under-performing councils are dealing with their issues. To us it demonstrates that LGNZ is a lobby group to protect local councils rather than a champion of best practise.

Click "continue reading" to view the report.

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Ratepayers' Report

The Taxpayers’ Union, in collaboration with Fairfax Media, this morning launched "Ratepayers’ Report” hosted by Stuff.co.nz. 

Ratepayers' Review 

Ratepayers’ Report builds on the work of local government expert and financial analyst, Larry Mitchell and his work in previous years comparing New Zealand’s 67 territorial authorities. The data was pulled together by the Taxpayers' Union and supplied to Fairfax Media. Fairfax has had the data checked independently and supplied it to councils for viewing before its publication.

For the first time, New Zealanders now have an interactive online tool to compare their local council to those of the rest of the country. Go to Ratepayersreport.co.nz to compare your local council including average rates, debt per ratepayer and even CEO salaries.

Ratepayers’ Report compares, for the first time, average residential rates.  The figure has been calculated using a methodology developed within the local government sector to compare average residential rates.  Only Kaipara District Council was unwilling to provide the Taxpayers’ Union with the average residential rates information.

Some highlights: 

  • New Zealand’s highest average residential rates are in the Western Bay of Plenty District, $3,274
  • The Mackenzie District has the lowest average residential rates, nearly two thirds less at $1,104
  • The average council liabilities are $4,386 per ratepayer
  • Auckland Council’s liabilities are now $15,858 per ratepayer (and increasing!)
  • Dunedin is not far behind. For every Dunedin ratepayer, the Council owes $15,093

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Update on Dunedin Mayor’s “Gentleman’s agreement”

We now have more details of the deal uncovered by the Taxpayers’ Union over the weekend between Dunedin’s Mayor Dave Cull and former MP, Pete Hodgson, which the Mayor described in the media as a “gentleman’s agreement”.

This morning’s Christchurch Press editorial analyses the deal:

Editorial: Gentlemen sign contracts too

...

There is no reason to believe that Cull and Hodgson are anything other than honest gentlemen, but the geographic accident that also gives them "southern man" status should not put them above the usual requirements by which local government business is conducted.

The standards that apply to council administration in the south should be no less rigorous than in Auckland city or the Whangarei district. Why should ratepayers in Dunedin tolerate a more easy-going attitude towards the spending of their money than anywhere else, just because of a romantic notion that southerners are somehow more honourable? Actually, they aren't.

Click here to read more.

Mr Hodgson has provided emails from him to the Council from August 2013, relating to 40 hours of “consulting” equalling $3,200 of the $3,400 total we questioned.

It appears the Council was wrong to tell us that no documentation or invoice was available.

Producing an invoice under public pressure is only one aspect of the matter settled. It raises a whole lot more questions:

  • Was it signed off by Council or did it come from a mayoral slush fund? 
  • Who authorised the payment?
  • How come the Council could not provide this information before? Why did it need to come from Mr Hodgson?
  • What other payments are made without the Council’s finance department holding documentation?
  • Was the Council deliberately misleading us when they told us no documentation existed? If so, why?
  • What else does the Mayor negotiate without documentation?
  • How is it appropriate to have the Mayor hire someone to do work with no authorisation, no contract, and not even retain the invoice?
  • With the Council's audit and risk committee be examining what's happened here?

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Payments by Dunedin City Council to former MP with no documentation

This morning the Taxpayers’ Union went public with material concerning a payment (or payments) totalling $3,400 by the Dunedin City Council to former MP Pete Hogdson with no documentation or contract.

We're questioning the internal controls at the Council after the uncovering the payment following a recent media report that Mr Hodgson had been recruited by the Council for lobbying. We asked for information about the services being provided by Mr Hodgson under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act. Click "continue reading" below to view the Council's response.

According to the Council, Mr Hodgson’s work consisted of “lobbying and advocating on behalf of the Council” and there is no supporting documentation. 

The Council has told us that:

  • Everything was verbal. The Council could not provide a single report, email, or even letter of engagement.
  • All of the contracts were negotiated verbally.
  • The contracts were negotiated by the Mayor and there is no documentation to explain the deal.

We asked for copies of any work by Mr Hodgson. All we got back was two letters by the mayor on which Mr Hodgson apparently had input. It is not clear what precisely that was. For example, there is no 'tracked changes" document.

We think Dunedin ratepayers will be alarmed that their Council paid $3,400 without so much as an invoice. We plan to write to the Mayor to to ask:

  • What did Mr Hodgson do? Was this just expensive proof reading?
  • Why was the Mayor negotiating this in the first place?
  • Why verbally?
  • Why is there absolutely no documentation for the arrangement, not even an email?
  • Is Mr Hodgson friends with the Mayor?
  • Why doesn't Dunedin Council have the most basic internal controls, requiring amounts to be paid by invoice only?

The Council’s response raises serious questions.  We can't think of another government agency that would spend $3,400 without being able to provide as much as an invoice. 

Without an explanation from the Council, we are left wondering whether the Auditor-General should get involved."

Dunedin City Council LGOIMA response - Pete Hodgson

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Fizz using Health Research Council's logo without permission

The Taxpayer’s Union has discovered that the 'Fizz' group of academics campaigning for a ‘sugar tax’ on soft drinks appears to have been falsely claiming the endorsement of the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC).

A group of academics who have received a lot of publicity recently, calling themselves "Fizz" and pushing a sugar tax, appear to have been caught out. On the 'programme guide', which was available on their website, fizz.org.nz they listed the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC)'s logo. The full document is available here.

We wrote to the HRC asking what the nature of its support is for Fizz. We wondered why this group of academics, clearly pushing for political ends (i.e. a sugar tax) were receiving taxpayer support from the HRC.

We found that "Fizz" were fibbing - HRC are not supporting their sugar tax campaign.

The letter from the HRC's Chief Executive, Dr Robin Olds, is below. It states that Fizz is not receiving any support form the HRC and suggests that Fizz has been misleading its supporters, the public, and the media.

 

Subsequently, we've also learned that Dr Olds has asked that the HRC logo be removed from Fizz’s promotional material. In an email to the Taxpayers’ Union Mr Olds said,

“In a phone call to the conference organiser we pointed out that using our logo was inappropriate, given that [Fizz] did not seek our permission, and that some appeared to interpret the logo as the HRC endorsing the conference."

We've also written to the other government bodies that are apparently supporting this Fizz group. We want to know whether they are supporting Fizz's political activities or whether Fizz is also falsely claiming support. 

In the meantime, we think that one has to be sceptical about a group claiming to be 'evidence based' and about science when they use the HRC’s logo without permission. We think it potentially calls into question their academic credibility.

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Update on the AAE - DoC requests that logo be removed

Further to our questions about whether or not DoC is a supporter of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (the scientific expedition that got stuck in the ice recently), yesterday we received another letter from DoC confirming that DoC has not supported the AAE. It states that DoC has now asked the AAE for its logo to be removed from the expedition's website.

To recap, after asking how much taxpayer money had been committed to the failed expedition, we discovered that the AEE was falsely claiming DoC as a 'supporter'. See my earlier posts here and here.

We look forward to receiving responses from the other New Zealand 'supporters', Landcare Research and the University of Waikato.

Click "continue reading" for the correspondence.

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Oops - looks like DoC isn't the only 'supporter' of the AAE caught unaware

Further to my discovery and blog post earlier today that DoC is in fact not supporting the Australian Antarctic Expedition ("AAE") - despite being listed as such on the AAE website, the Australian blog "Watts Up With That" reports that the Australasian Antarctic Devision (i.e. a division of the Australian Department of the Environment) has also been caught on the hop as an unknown 'supporter' of the AAE trip to the ice.  The Ministry has made an effort to disassociate itself on Australian radio ABC.

Australian Antarctic Division head Tony Fleming says they’ll make efforts to recover the cost of #spiritofmawson rescue

From radio 666 ABC in Canberra, Australia, full audio follows.

Tony Fleming, director of the Australian Antarctic Division tells Louise Maher the AAD wasn’t linked to the Australasian Antarctic Expedition despite an implication by the expedition head that he had an “official stamp of approval”.

The expedition was brought to a halt when its ship became trapped in ice, stranding the 52 tourists and scientists on board.

A Chinese ice-breaker which went to its rescue of the Russian ship also became stuck in the ice. The ship’s passengers were airlifted to an Australian ice breaker Aurora Australis – which is due to reach Hobart in about a fortnight.

Tony Fleming says the AAD will make efforts to recover the cost of the rescue which set back their own missions.

Listen to the audio:

 

Also, since this morning's post one of our volunteers has  pointed out the following on the AAE website:

That would appear inconsistent with what DoC told us yesterday, i.e. that no support was being provided.

Click "continue reading" for more info.

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