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Mayor Goff: First among unequals

It was the French King Louis XIV who famously declared "L'etat, c'est moi" - or "I am the state" to show his absolute power.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff could be tempted to use "I am the Council" after the Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier's inquiry into Goff's treatment of his councillors.

The inquiry cleared Goff over making two costly consultant reports into an Auckland waterfront stadium available to his 20 councillors under strict conditions which prevented them from having a physical copy.

Two of the councillors, Cathy Casey and John Watson, complained about Goff impeding their right to have the information and also queried why Goff, as Mayor, could have unfettered access to the whole report while elected councillors had to make do with redacted crumbs.

Interestingly the Chief Ombudsman's case note on the complaint, released this week, included a justification from the Auckland Council bureaucracy for why giving a full, unredacted copy to the Mayor without conditions, over giving similar access to councillors.

The council view is that the Mayor of Auckland is a unique statutory role under the Local Government (Auckland Council) Act 2009. That law, establishing the Super City amalgamated from numerous local bodies, made the Mayor responsible for drafting budget proposals for the annual and 10-year plans. 

Those budget plans are shaped by the Mayor and then put to the rest of the council, the Governing Body of the 20 councillors plus Goff, for final decisions.

The council view to Boshier is that a waterfront stadium would inevitably have to be considered and planned as part of 10-year and annual plans. What was left unsaid was anything big, secret and expensive would therefore fall under the Mayor's influence in the first instance.

Council officials also argued the Mayor had special status over councillors because he was elected "at large" across Auckland, not as councillors are, by one of the area wards which they represent.

In artful bureaucratese, the council said: "The public and media expectation is that he will be in a position to respond to requests for information and comment across a very broad spectrum of activity. This requires that he have access to information and be briefed on a wide variety of issues, proposals and policies."

So by this criteria, councillors, elected by some of the electorate, could end up being provided with some of the information on issues or to have only some of the rights to information of the unelected council staffers and the Mayor.

Boshier notes: "In this case, the council was concerned with losing control of the information through copying and disseminating.

"While the council recognised the role of councillor favoured the disclosure of further information than what was available to the public, it did not consider the position as an elected member in itself altered the likely harm that would arise from public disclosure of the information."     

How the council staff interpret their obligations to the Mayor and councillors was not for Boshier to determine. He was dealing with the councillors' complaint about access to information under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) and the internal status of elected officials did not fall under that remit.

Boshier found Goff was in the clear to have asked councillors not to copy the two PwC reports on the stadium options, to keep the reports in a secure location and then return them to him. It was not uncommon for documents to be required to be viewed and secured under strict conditions. They had the opportunity to read the information necessary for them to perform their elected duties.

The LGOIMA allowed material to be withheld if its release could prejudice the commercial position of the person who supplied it, or who it was about - and if such information had been passed to the council with an obligation of confidence.

Boshier said elected councillors did not have "an absolute right to inspect all information the council holds" but successive Ombudsmen had recognised there was a strong public interest in "allowing elected members access to information they require in order to perform their duties, a consideration that would not apply to other members of the public."

Ultimately in this case that public interest had been met by Goff making the full report available to councillors to read, subject to his conditions.

The dispute over the PwC report might be redundant, now an entirely new proposal for a submerged waterfront stadium to be privately funded on Bledisloe Wharf has become public well in advance of council consideration. It did not feature at all in the $1 million PwC studies.

But two things are clear from the withholding of the information, the councillors' complaint and the Chief Ombudsman's ruling:

The council bureaucracy and mayor did not trust councillors not to leak a confidential report.

The public ranks beneath the councillors who rank beneath the Mayor when the secret matters of state - sorry, council - are to be considered.

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