EVALUATION OF THE MAYOR’S RESPONSE TO THE AUDITOR-GENERAL’S DECISIONS
Mayor Steve Chadwick’s response suffers from three major problems. The first is that it is mostly a personal attack on the Secretary of the Rotorua District Residents and Ratepayers (RDRR) who lodged complaints with the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) on behalf of members. It was, therefore, an aggressive denial of the legitimate democratic rights of citizens to hold elected representatives to account and revealed the Mayor’s inappropriately arrogant disposition towards citizens who have organized to question her leadership.
The second problem is that the Mayor ignores the fact that the complaints about the Mudtopia event were made with evidence of incompetence about Council’s financial management, accountability and governance. Under the Mayor’s personal leadership, the initial proposal was to import mud from South Korea (which has endemic foot and mouth disease) to international scorn and acute local embarrassment. Even then the event proceeded against widespread public advice to eventually lose $740,387. Evidence was also provided by the RDRR of the need to conduct an independent and forensic audit of transactions and to investigate a potential conflict of intertest by Cr Trevor Maxwell. The OAG did not comment on the competence of the Audit and Risk Committee. Hence, the Mayor’s dismissal of the complaints because they were based “on rumour, speculation and conspiracy theories” knowingly ignored the presence of evidence and suggested an absolute denial of culpability.
The third problem is that the Mayor’s response alleges a repeated needless waste of time and resources without substantive evidence. She concludes, wildly, that “once again authorities have concluded there is nothing to inquire into” … having been “drawn into having to respond to matters proven to be false.” In the case of Mudtopia, her allegation and conclusion are sharply at odds with the OAG’s findings that governance arrangements were muddled, the expenditure cap of $500,000 was raised by the Mayor and CE without formal Council authorization, and patently failed to meet the OAG’s “expectation that public entities need full and proper records of their work that show what decisions were made, how they made them, and the basis on which they were made.”
It was saddening that the AOG’s decision not to carry out a formal inquiry or forensic audit into the matters raised was given two false justifications: “The expenses incurred by the Council from the Mudtopia event are already in the public arena for scrutiny. The public has the ability to question the Council about individual expenses and hold the Council accountable for those.” One complaint to the OAG was that Council had stopped providing answers to public questions about Mudtopian transactions. Another was that four attempts by elected councillors and the RDRR to have the Council refer Mudtopia to independent and forensic audit to evaluate transactions had been rejected. The Mayor would have known that the two justifications were contested.
The fourth problem is that the Mayor generalized from earlier challenges to her electoral legitimacy as Mayor when each case has unique circumstances. For example, the challenge to the election results in 2016 was withdrawn when the District Court Judge made procedural rulings prior to the case being heard that made success unlikely, with court costs to the complainant and ratepayers only likely to escalate. The Mayor is well aware that the case for a request for an inquiry into the election was placed in the public domain before a confidential withdrawal agreement was reached, there was no ruling on the merits of case itself, the estimate of $230,000 in staff time and resources and legal costs can be seen as part of a political vilification campaign, and even if ever verified, would be trivial compared to the known costs of vanity, legacy and pork-barrel projects widely associated with the Mayor’s regime since 2013.
The fifth problem is that the Mayor fails to take any personal responsibility for her part in the governance muddle that enabled the ad hoc financial management and maladministration described by the OAG. As she admitted publicly about the OAG’s early finding, that it had “been reasonable in the circumstances” for informal processes to be used to ‘authorize’ her and councillors’ legal expenses being paid from the public purse; “we were vindicated but not exonerated”. The point here is that taking personal responsibility is the first step towards rehabilitation.
The sixth and overarching problem is that the Mayor has politicized her power bloc, including senior officials, to the point where RDRR’s office bearers are publicly vilified for opposing poor governance in the public interest. Her preferred narrative is that the OAG’s decision not to proceed with an inquiry or financial audit should end all discussion of Mudtopia and focus on the tagline of her regime; progress.
The Mayor’s political problem is that the OAG’s implausible decision has actually helped embed Mudtopia even more deeply in our community’s memory, as a symbol of mayoral incompetence, much more deeply than ‘progress’, which remains an elusive, fragile, ambiguous and socially exclusive slogan.
The last word came unsolicited via social media: “Interesting to read more of the issue that you are clearly deeply involved in. What is despicable in the report is the standard tactic by mayors when they are shown up to be so lacking in morality so try to humiliate any opposition. I look forward to reading soon about you and your worthy team slamming the mayor for using such dirty tactics. The culture must change.”