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Carterton Councillor Submits To Long-term Plan, May Be Excluded From Decisions

An elected member who made a submission to her council’s Long-Term Plan [LTP] could be excluded from making decisions on it.

Carterton councillor Grace Ayling wrote in her LTP submission that Carterton District Council [CDC] was “continuing to spend, borrow, and splurge on projects that are outside of core business” and that it needed to focus its spend on core business and “cut its cloth to suit the tough economic times we are currently in.”

She said CDC’s proposed spend on cycle paths was “tone-deaf to the concerns and struggles of our ratepayers”, and that the events centre “continued to be a significant cost burden to ratepayers”.

A CDC spokesperson said that a councillor submitting on its LTP consultation was “not necessarily excluded from the Hearings and Deliberations process because they submitted”.

“However, verbal advice we received from Local Government New Zealand suggests a councillor may be precluded from parts or all of the Hearings and Deliberations process where it could be perceived they have already made up their mind on an issue or issues.”

They said the matter had been “escalated to the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, and Hearings Committee Chair for their consideration”.

According to the agenda for the council’s hearings on Wednesday, councillors should “accept the views presented with an open mind”.

“If councillors have a close association with a submitter they must carefully consider if this gives rise to a conflict of interest.

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“If it does, then a conflict of interest must be declared, and the member should then not participate in the decision-making on points raised by those submitters.”

However, the Free Speech Union [FSU], of which Ayling’s husband is the chief executive, says it will be “ideological prejudice” if CDC does not let Ayling participate in deliberations as a councillor.

The FSU is considering pursuing legal action if Ayling is excluded from deliberations.

A letter addressed to CDC from the FSU said opposition to Ayling participating in deliberations “stems from allegations her submission appears to constitute a predetermination”.

In the letter, FSU senior in-house counsel Hannah Clow said it was “nonsense” to suggest that Ayling was unwilling or unable to engage with submissions from the public with an open mind due to having longstanding perspectives related to council funding for local projects, such as the Carterton Events Centre, or cycle trail.

“We have seen no evidence to suggest that she is biased or any more predetermined on these or other matters than other councillors on the council,” Clow said.

“We are concerned the difference is simply the content of her perspectives — questioning aspects of the council’s Long-Term Plan.”

A spokesperson from the Office of the Auditor-General [OAG] said there was nothing to stop an elected member from putting in a submission – using their own resources and time to do so.

“However, they need to be mindful of the need to manage any conflict of interest – whether actual or perceived,” the OAG spokesperson said.

"All public organisations, including councils, should identify and manage conflicts of interest in accordance with our good practice guidance. The matter you raise is similar to scenario 7 in this guidance."

This example suggested councillors are entitled to exercise the democratic right to make submissions but if they do so, they should not sit on the committee that hears and considers the submissions as this may indicate predetermination.

“Ultimately, councils are responsible for ensuring they follow their policies when managing any potential conflicts.”

Speaking to Local Democracy Reporting, Ayling said when standing for election in 2022, she campaigned on the belief “that rates in Carterton presently do not align with the priorities of many of our ratepayers”.

“I am eager to engage in the conversation around our Long-Term Plan and intend on working to ensure it is sustainable.

“Seeing as we called for the submissions of the public, I wanted to lead by example.

“Every ratepayer in Carterton should get to have a say in how we spend their money.

“I’m looking forward to hearing their feedback during oral submissions on Wednesday and welcome their insights into all aspects of the Long-Term Plan.

Ayling’s husband Jonathan has also made a submission to the plan, signalling his intentions to move out of the district “as I do not see the value in comparison to the cost [of rates]”.

-NZLDR
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

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