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Howard’s End: Much Ado About Driving

After discussions at four public meetings over four months, one publicly excluded meeting and a legal opinion, there will now be a sixth meeting of the Westland District Council on the West Coast to decide whether the Mayor should be provided with a car for his official duties. John Howard writes.

New Zealanders often complain about the time-wasting, costs and quality of local government decision-making. At the Westland District Council meeting held today in Hokitika, those complaints seemed justified.

The Westland District is the second-largest local body district in New Zealand. It covers from Kumara in the north to Haast in the south - roughly equivalent to the Mayor of Auckland having to visit ratepayers and attend meetings in, say, Taupo.

Currently the Westland Mayor, John Drylie, is paid a mileage allowance to use his own vehicle - an older Japanese import with an already high mileage on it.

Based on the distance he needs to travel, the actual AA-quoted costs of running a vehicle and the amount of mileage allowance he is allowed, he can take a loss from his net Mayoral salary as high as $3,500 each year.

Today, the council resolved to include in the 2000/2001 Draft Annual Plan, provision for the leasing of a new 3.0L vehicle (up the value of $35,000) for the unrestricted use of the Mayor.

I'm still mystified why Council chose to lease a vehicle to the value of $35,000 when a good low mileage Japanese import, like many of us drive, would do.

Nevertheless, the decision today raises an interesting point because it is the General Manger who has statutory responsibility to provide operational support, including vehicles, to the Mayor and Council.

It seems this provision may have been included in the Local Government Act by Parliament to prevent an issue such as this from becoming the political football that it has in Westland.

When the issue of the car was raised by me back in August, some councillors said, "the public will crucify us" and "it's not the right time."

So, a petition was organised by a resident and a councillor which gathered more than 300 signatures around Hokitika in favour of the Council providing the Mayor with a car.

Moreover, since August there has been just one opposing letter to the editor of the local newspaper and no written complaints to Council. The evidence, therefore, was clearly in favour of the Mayor having a car provided by Council.

At its October meeting, finally we all thought, the council voted 7-3 to lease a vehicle for the use of the Mayor.

But today, that decision was overturned.

Prudently, the Mayor has vacated the chair whenever the matter was discussed because he saw that there could be public perceptions of bias over a decision which directly affected him.

For all that, the Council has never asked him, or given him the opportunity to speak about his views - at least not in a public forum.

Without needing to produce any contrary facts or evidence, like an opposing petition or written complaints, most Westland councillors now accepted that there had been "overwhelming numbers" against the process for deciding whether the Mayor should be provided a car and that it should now go to the draft annual plan.

However, the Westland District Council has made other financial decisions outside the annual plan process. So it is not being consistent.

The issue I now take is not about the Mayor or the car. It is about local government politicians following the rule of law and due process of law.

If local government councillors can introduce notices of motion and then make decisions to overturn previous lawful resolutions without having to provide any opposing evidence to support their claims, then the rule of law goes out the window and anarchy and uncertainty can take over.

The appeals' judges at the Erebus Royal Commission made this point clearly in the context of the rules of natural justice.

That ruling held, "The first rule is that a person making a finding must base his decision on evidence that has some probative value.......the decision to make the finding must be based upon some material that tends logically to show the existence of facts consistent with the finding and that the reasoning supportive of the finding is not logically self-contradictory."

There were no facts or evidence upon which the Westland District Council based its decision today and the reasoning they used was logically self-contradictory to the facts they already held.

The decision was based on nothing more than unsupported gossip - which is certainly not fact and can never be verified.

I want to paint a scenario where this kind of faulty decision-making can be vitally important.

Suppose after spending considerable personal time, resources and holding wide-ranging discussions for a potential investment, a person arrives in Westland to confidentially talk to Council about it.

To get the investment off the ground it might need some Council support such as using some idle Council land or perhaps some rates relief.

The Council finally meets, deliberates on the proposal, weighes up the evidence and makes a decision to support the investment proposal.

Great, the person goes away to finalise the details, confident that they have certainty.

Meanwhile, a few councillors hear some gossip from perhaps disgruntled local people. This hasn't been to public consultation they say, and Council is using ratepayer's land and our money for rates relief - or perhaps even, we don't like it.

So, these few councillors with no evidence and relying on nothing more than gossip, get up a notion of motion to overturn the previous decision and without being required to provide any evidence to support their claims, they have it overturned.

Rightly or wrongly, this type of decision-making can send a terrible message of uncertainty and inconsistency to the community and to the rest of New Zealand.

If there were opposing facts and evidence presented to support the claims made and which Council could properly weigh-up, then nobody could complain - but there wasn't.

Maybe the quality of the decision-making process I've painted above will not arise in Westland in the future. But that's not the point. The simple fact is that it can, and today, it did.

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