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Are councils fibbing under freedom of information laws?

It appears that the councils of two of our largest cities do not take freedom of information laws seriously. As a constitutional lawyer and advocate for government transparency, I am deeply saddened.

Cost of Wellington City Council’s website - $317,726 or $1.7million? Depends who’s asking…

Last week the Taxpayers’ Union criticised Marlborough City Council for spending $410,000 on web design and development. We made a feature of it on our website and our analysis was even covered in the local paper. We thought the amount was outrageous – ‘$100,000 more than Wellington City’s award winning website’.

We were wrong. Though the Wellington City Council told us it had spent $317,726, it had told someone else it had spent $1.7million on the same site. Though we’ve written (and spoken) to the Council’s CEO, the inconsistency has not been explained. We’ve posted the two information request responses, as well as the ‘please explain’ letter here.

But it gets worse.

We asked Auckland Council about a mayoral trip to China – officials suggested the trip never happened

Over some months, a number of Taxpayers’ Union volunteers have made official information requests relating to items of sensitive expenditure such as credit cards and international travel.

We had a tip that related to inappropriate credit card expenditure by the interpreter who accompanied Auckland’s Mayor on a trip to China in January or February 2013. We made an official information request to Auckland Council to identify the Council official so we could review the expenses.

Because we did not know the precise dates of the January/February 2013 trip, but understood that it was the Mayor’s most recent trip to China, we couched the request in those terms.

The Council’s response and the attachment is here and here. They refer to the identity of an interpreter who travelled with the Mayor on a trade delegation to China in April 2012. No mention is made of the early 2013 trip.

On Friday afternoon, the Taxpayers’ Union spoke to an official at the Auckland Council who confirmed that the Council misled us.

Of even greater concern is that the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, Phil Wilson, has allegedly instructed that all requests from the Taxpayers’ Union relating to the January 2013 China trip, be directed to him.

It appears that officials tried to hide and/or were gagged from talking about the trip by a political appointee in the Mayor’s office.

Yesterday we wrote to Mr Wilson, asking for an urgent explanation and clarification. We asked that if we had the wrong end of the stick, for him to urgently contact us. We’ve posted the letter here.

Yesterday afternoon Mr Wilson called me. He would not engage on the substance of our concerns, but wanted an “off the record” conversation, the contents of which we had to agree not to repeat. We refused.

Mr Wilson has agreed to provide an “official” response once he has spoken to Mayor. We’ve heard no more.

Transparency matters – this is our money they’re spending

Politicians often talk about political and financial transparency. We need to make sure that isn’t just empty rhetoric.

In the case of Wellington, we don’t know whether there was deliberate obfuscation, a mistake, or misinterpretation. Admittedly the wording of the two requests is not identical (though we think that if the explanation were that simple the Council could have reconciled the amounts immediately).

In the case of Auckland, we are asking the Ombudsman to urgently investigate. If the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act has been breached, or worse, a political staffer in the Mayor’s office has interfered with the Taxpayers’ Union information request, the only remedy is a strong rebuke by the Ombudsman (and the public).

The Official Information Act (and the local government equivalent) relies on trust. If council officials are abusing that, reform to properly enforce the law is urgently needed.

If it turns out the councils have deliberately lied to us, or there has been an attempt at a cover up, politicians can expect to hear more from the Taxpayers’ Union about strengthening our information laws.

We’ll keep you updated.

Jordan Williams
Executive Director

Update: we've put out a press release which is available here.

Update 2: Cameron Slater at WhaleOil has blogged on similar matters relating to Auckland Council responses to information requests.  As far as we are aware the examples Cameron Slater has posted are separate to the material posted here by the Taxpayers' Union.

Update 3: Our complaint to the Ombudsman has now been sent.

Jordan Williams
Jordan Williams