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A councillor took a holiday to the Cook Islands. It was recorded as 'council business'

Author
Simon Wilson,
Section
Politics,
Publish Date
Friday, 9 November 2018, 6:41a.m.
Greg Sayers was seen in Rarotonga by Penny Hulse. Photo / Supplied
Greg Sayers was seen in Rarotonga by Penny Hulse. Photo / Supplied

Councillors gone awol. Councillor Greg Sayers was in the Cook Islands recently. So, coincidentally, was Councillor Penny Hulse. She bumped into him in the Muri Night Market on Rarotonga.

Hulse was on holiday. But Sayers wasn't. His absence had been recorded as "council business", although he wasn't doing any business for the council.

"Hi Greg," Hulse apparently said to him. "What a surprise."

Sayers promptly contacted council officials and asked for the record to be changed so he too, was listed as being on holiday. At a council meeting shortly after, when the minutes were being confirmed, he made a point of clarifying that he had been absent on leave, not on council business.

Asked to comment, Sayers said, "Yes, my absence was incorrectly recorded at a committee meeting and this has been corrected." He did not directly respond to the suggestion he had incorrectly recorded the absence himself.

Hulse followed up at a meeting this week by opposing a procedural motion to accept the apologies of absent councillors. This time she named Fa'anānā Efeso Collins, who was recorded as absent on "council business".

Collins was in the US at the time, as a guest of the State Department, observing their midterm elections.

Asked to comment, Collins said he was visiting "a number of American states to understand the function and relationship of federal, state and local government".

Penny Hulse says councillors need to provide clear and credible information on trips. Photo / Supplied
Penny Hulse says councillors need to provide clear and credible information on trips. Photo / Supplied

He described Hulse's complaint as "a lame attempt to discredit this most valuable, professional development trip. In my view the travel meets the definition of being away on council business."

He said he'd briefed the mayor, Phil Goff, before he left. Goff had shared stories from the time he went on the same programme as an MP.

A spokesperson for Goff confirmed this, adding that the mayor did not approve the trip – because the mayor does not have the authority to do that. Councillors define their own "council business".

It's the second time this year Collins has visited the US on "council business". In July he attended a "Deliberative Democracy Exchange" in Ohio as a guest of the Kettering Foundation, a public policy think tank.

Hulse said she accepts there is a difference between a councillor having a political learning experience overseas and just going on holiday, but she believes such trips should have public scrutiny anyway.

"It's fantastic for him," she said about Collins' trip. "Good on him. But why were we not given the chance to talk about this?"

She suggested councillors who want to record an absence on council business should have to provide "clear and credible" information about what they're up to. She's asked council officials to report on whether they could change the standing orders to require that.

Inviting councillors to judge each other's activity carries some obvious problems: councillors are accountable to the voters, after all, not to each other. A better solution might be to require councillors absent on council business to file a report when they return.

Goff already does that, routinely, and so does his deputy, Bill Cashmore. Their reports are in the public record.

But not all councillors do it. Perhaps they should – that would help all of us decide if they're earning their pay.

Attendance data is already on the public record and the last six months' worth (April-September, see table) reveal a surprisingly wide range among councillors.

They all belong to the governing body and three "committees of the whole" (finance, planning and environment and community). There are six more "reporting and standing committees" to which they can choose to belong. Some sign up for more than others. The mayor and his deputy are ex-officio members of all 10.

Graphic / Supplied
Graphic / Supplied

If they belong to a committee they're supposed to go to its meetings. It's not the only thing we pay them for, but the meetings are important: that's where they make decisions.

Councillors are also invited to attend "workshops", where they're briefed by officials and discuss the detail of council proposals. Workshops are the engine room for generating informed debate – so while they're not compulsory they are important too.

Desley Simpson gets the gold star. She attended her committee meetings for 99 per cent of the time in the last six months and for workshops it was 95 per cent. But she belongs to only five committees, so perhaps doesn't have quite as many meetings as most other councillors.

John Watson, Cathy Casey, Richard Hills and Chris Darby also attended committees over 90 per cent of the time and Casey, Darby and Hills were in the top four for workshops too, along with Simpson.

The councillor who showed up the least was Sir John Walker: he attended 43 per cent of meetings and only 19 per cent of workshops. Sir John has Parkinson's disease and is not able to play a full role in council business. He was one of several councillors to be granted a leave of absence during some of this period.

The average for committee meetings was 80 per cent. But it was a different story with workshops, where the average dropped to 64 per cent. Sayers, Sharon Stewart, Collins, Mike Lee and Goff also all attended less than half of the time.

Not counting Sir John, Sayers had the worst workshop record by far: he turned up only 27 per cent of the time to workshops. Asked about this, he said, "Rather than being at all of the non-decision making workshops, I find my time is far better spent out in the community engaging with Auckland's citizens, listening to their needs and actively helping them. Being out in the community helping people is a very rewarding part of my job."

Sayers didn't just miss three quarters of the workshops, he used "council business" – remember that? – as the reason for his absence 47 per cent of the time.

No other councillors came close to this. Even the mayor, who probably has far more council business calling him away than all the others, cited it only 22 per cent of the time.

Stewart advised that if she is absent, she is "almost always out in my community". She added that with the illness and death of her Howick ward co-councillor Dick Quax this year, she has had the workload of two councillors. Collins said, "I am confident that my local residents will be more than satisfied with my commitment to them."

As it happens, most of the councillors with below-average attendance records at workshops are also those most likely to vote against the various proposals before council.

It's their job to vote as they see fit, of course. But if they took more of their chances to become better informed, might they not be more effective in their opposition?

And yes, they do earn good money. The base salary for a councillor is $109,750.

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