INACCURATE, BIASED AND UNFAIR REPORTING
Nikki Preston’s 11 January article in The Herald and reprinted in the Rotorua Daily Post failed to meet the Media Council’s first principle of ethical reporting. It appears to have uncritically repeated disinformation provided by Rotorua Lakes Council (RLC) and published it without providing a right of reply.
There are many inaccuracies in the article. One, not five complaints were lodged by ‘council colleagues’. The Deputy Mayor, Cr Dave Donaldson, complained when I summarized the Southstar Shuttles scandal at the Rotorua District Residents and Ratepayers’ Facebook, and with a RDRR co-councillor, submitted a Notice of Motion asking the RLC to review of its relationship with the Central North Island (CNI) Iwi Holdings. In my opinion (IMO) his complaint was intended to suppress the truth.
The relevant facts are that Council officials had collaborated with CNI Iwi Holdings when it decided to reallocate a shuttle contract to itself. Cr Donaldson’s explanation and justification were ridiculed at the Southstar Shuttles FB by many thousands in the New Zealand mountain-biking community. Further, at the request of the Deputy Mayor, the RLC allocated $125,000 per annum subsidy for five years to Crankworx, a mountain-biking festival. It also allocated over $7 million to the Whaka Forest Hub 2 budget of $14.5 million, along with the Provincial Growth Fund. IMO, the investment of rates by the Council into tourism infrastructure and maintenance in perpetuity on land owned by CNI Iwi Holdings is an example of corporatism or crony capitalism.
The second and third complaints were lodged in collaboration with the Deputy Mayor by the CEO and another senior official of CNI Iwi Holdings. The close relationships involved are well known. For example, the Deputy Mayor is a godfather to one of the CEO’s children. The fourth and vague complaint was lodged by a civilian who is an ardent supporter of the Mayor and Deputy Mayor. The fifth complaint was lodged by the Chair of the Lakes Community Board, Phill Thomass, another close political affiliate of the Mayor. But his complaint was about being exposed at the RDRR FB as having lied about the capacity of the Rotoiti/ Rotoma Wastewater Treatment plant when he claimed, at the official opening, that “it removes all Nitrogen and Phosphorus”. IMO the common ground between all five background complaints is public embarrassment due to truthful revelations at the RDRR FB page.
Preston’s article is deeply biased in favour of how Mayor Steve Chadwick used the formal complaint process. The five background complaints were bundled by Chadwick and advanced by her as one Code of Conduct complaint. When I took time to respond to each of the background complaints over the 2019-2020 Christmas New Year break, as required by the Harmful Digital Communications Act, Chadwick acted prematurely IMO to cut short the period for informal consultations and trigger the formal involvement of the Audit and Risk Committee as a disciplinary mechanism.
Conflicts of interests were immediately evident. The Mayor acted as both process facilitator and the formal complainant, i.e. as chief prosecutor. All but two on the A&R Committee were mayoral appointees who are also dependent on the mayor for their ‘leadership’ appointments and weighted salaries in what I regard as a patronage network. The A&R then commissioned the Council’s go-to barrister, Lachlan Muldowney, as an ‘independent investigator’. This was, IMO, cynical and provocative because I had faced him in the District Court in 2016 when I raised concerns about the propriety of council elections.
My concerns were not taken seriously, and given the extreme potential for bias, there was such little possibility of natural justice. I refused to meet with the barrister and later systematically rejected his assertions in lieu of evidence and his findings as flawed, as well as the wider process and criteria used by the A&R. For example, although it was accepted by the ‘independent investigator’ and the A&R that the Code was obsolete due to the requirements of the HDCA, it was nevertheless used to find in favour of the five background complainants. I identified many other examples of procedural and legal flaws but they were ignored. However, given the triviality of the punishment I decided not to trigger further public expense by appealing to the Ombudsman.
Preston’s article is also grossly unfair. For example, when I publicized the extent to which the Code of Conduct process had been weaponized for political purposes by the Mayor, and that I would wear any censure as a badge of honour, the A&R Committee directed that I apologize to the complainants knowing full well that I would not comply. IMO this tactic was to enable the Mayor to make a symbolic apology ostensibly on my behalf. It would have been fairer had Preston allowed me to counter this tactic as a disingenuous end to the Mayor’s incapacity to silence me and to deliver utu to the background complainants, all her political followers. IMO it backfired.
Finally, Preston’s article was apparently intended to highlight examples where in-fighting on councils has wasted ratepayers’ resources. IMO, had she inquired a little further than merely consult with the Council’s spin doctors she would have found many examples where the RLC, under Mayor Chadwick’s leadership, has wasted tens of millions of ratepayers’ funds. She might start with the infamous Mudtopia festival, which wasted about $740,000 of public funds, considered the $40 million allocated to Pukeroa Lakefront Holding’s Lakefront Redevelopment project, through to the Hemo sculpture, which to date has wasted $743,029.
In the interim I request the Editor of The Herald and the Rotorua Post Post, and then if need be, the Media Council, for an apology from Nikki Preston for the reputational damage done to me by her inaccurate, biased and unfair reporting, albeit IMO a naïve addition to the vilification campaign waged by RLC spin doctors.