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‘Undemocratic Strong-arming’: Councillor Criticises LTP Exclusion

After a controversial start to Long-Term Plan proceedings, Carterton councillors will meet again today [Wednesday] to resume deliberations.

Last week, councillor Grace Ayling was excluded from LTP hearings and deliberations due to a perceived conflict of interest after she submitted to the council’s plan criticising proposed spend on cycle trails and the events centre.

It was then revealed the average proposed rates increase would be 17.5 per cent, not 15.09 per cent as originally proposed.

At an extraordinary meeting which kicked off the saga last week, a majority of councillors voted for submissions to be heard and for the LTP to be deliberated on by the Hearings Committee.

Councillors voted for all elected members to be appointed to the committee, which is chaired by councillor Robyn Cherry-Campbell.

Carterton District Council offices. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV

When Cherry-Campbell began the meeting, she called for conflicts of interest.

Ayling declared a conflict of interest regarding her husband’s submission but did not declare a conflict for her own submission.

Cherry-Campbell said there was a “real danger” because Ayling’s submission “may make people think she is not going to listen to or consider all relevant information before she contributes to the decisions — this is clear predetermination”.

She then excluded Ayling from participating in the process as an elected member.

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When Ayling spoke to her submission later that day, she said councillors each “come to this table with our own set of core beliefs, with values that help guide us in our deliberations and discussions”.

“It is for these core beliefs not in spite of them that residents vote us in.

“I was elected to cut costs, I do not have a conflict of interest, I have a mandate.”

She told fellow elected members it was “undemocratic” to be thrown out “without a council vote, and unable to hear my ratepayers concerns and to raise the questions I was elected to ask”.

“As an elected representative we are expected to have an open mind, we are not required to have an empty one.”

The next day, Ayling was invited back to the committee for deliberations following advice from Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ).

LGNZ, which represents councils, said Ayling could participate in deliberations except on matters about the cycle trail and events centre which she mentioned in her submission.

Ayling raised concerns several times that other councillors with declared conflicts of interest were not excluded from debate on issues pertaining to their conflicts.

Ayling told Local Democracy Reporting that her submission to the LTP had “resulted in a bit of panic inside the council but huge support from ratepayers who have flooded my phone”.

“The day after the chair of the hearings committee unilaterally excluded me from participating in the hearings committee submissions and deliberations, I was sheepishly invited back in.

“Regrettably I’m still waiting for acknowledgement of the mistake and an apology.”

Ayling said accusations of predetermination and bias were “weak arguments to exclude me from speaking out on wasteful spending” and said she would not be seeking legal action “as I don't want ratepayers having to fork out for legal fees”.

She said her exclusion from the LTP process was “an example of undemocratic strong-arming”.

“While I was ultimately vindicated, their actions meant I missed voting on the two core items council sought public feedback on.

"Most importantly I was out of the room while they discussed the fact that the average 15.09 per cent rates increase, which was consulted on, was in fact incorrect and had now increased further to 17.5 per cent — this potentially jeopardising the legality of our entire LTP.”

A Carterton District Council spokesperson said the council was seeking legal advice on the rates increase that was consulted on.

An update on the LTP would be included in the Risk and Assurance Committee meeting agenda scheduled for 8.30am today.

Deliberations would follow after.

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