'Distressing': Details of CEO's complaint against city councillor finally revealed

Georgina Campbell, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Mon, 3 May 2021, 9:26AM
Wellington City councillor Simon Woolf. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Wellington City councillor Simon Woolf. Photo / Mark Mitchell

'Distressing': Details of CEO's complaint against city councillor finally revealed

Georgina Campbell, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Mon, 3 May 2021, 9:26AM

Wellington City Council (WCC) has released a complaint made against councillor Simon Woolf, alleging he caused staff considerable distress and failed to consider his duty of care to them.

The Herald complained to the Ombudsman more than 16 months ago after the council refused to release all complaints made by both elected members and staff about Woolf's conduct over the past triennium.

The issue at stake was what level of privacy elected members should reasonably expect, given they are in public office.

The Ombudsman's investigation

The Herald asked for the information under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA).

But the council refused to release it to ensure the privacy of an individual, in this case Woolf, was protected.

"We do not consider his right to privacy is outweighed by the public interest test in the Act", officials said.

The Herald argued elected members accepted an attenuated right to privacy when they took public office.

Dr Dean Knight, an associate professor at Victoria University's faculty of law, agreed at the time the council's reasoning was bizarre and surprising.

The hint was in the title, councillors held positions of public office, they knew they had a reduced claim to privacy when taking on that role, he said.

Knight noted the privacy issue was more about complainants or staff, which he said could be dealt with through redactions and selective release.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier accepted there was a high public interest in transparency and accountability regarding an elected official's actions and conduct.

He said the council should not have refused the Herald's request for information about Woolf, but the council was entitled to withhold information about third parties.

The letter

It turns out there was just one piece of information considered to be in scope of the Herald's request.

It was a letter penned on September 9, 2019 by council chief executive Kevin Lavery to mayor Justin Lester, which set out a code of conduct complaint against Woolf.

The letter was released to the Herald with some minor redactions a week ago.

But after the council initially refused to release the information back in 2019, the Herald continued to investigate the matter.

It learned the nature of the complaint and obtained correspondence between Lavery and Woolf outlining their positions on the allegations.

In November 2019, sources confirmed to the Herald Lavery felt he was left with no choice but to ask for a code of conduct inquiry led by an external reviewer.

It was understood the complaint centred around Woolf wading into staffing employment matters.

In particular, comments he made after an Employment Relations Authority (ERA) decision that assessed claims a former council staff member was bullied by her team leader.

The ERA ruled the allegations did not constitute bullying or unreasonable behaviour, but it did find the council failed to properly investigate a personal grievance.

Woolf's comments were reported in the Dominion Post on August 21, 2019 in a story about the amount of ratepayer money spent on the workplace bullying claim.

"Councillor Simon Woolf said [Angela] Rampton's ERA fight was a 'David and Goliath' battle that had likely cost much more than $98,000 to resolve when staff time was taken into account", the article said.

"Council has so much ratepayer resource and we fight to win at all costs", Woolf told the Dominion Post.

This was also set out in the letter subsequently released to the Herald.

Lavery wrote that Woolf's statement about a win at all costs mentality was "simply untrue" and was deeply distressing to some staff.

"His comments are not "innocuous", instead he has commented in a way which allows the public to infer that the council has unreasonably pursued the matter and that it was unjust."

He raised concerns Woolf's comments could compromise the council's obligations as a good employer and may expose it to risk.

This was not the first time Woolf had transgressed into staffing employment matters and on those occasions work was undertaken to avoid formal complaints, Lavery said.

Woolf was also accused of interfering with employment issues earlier in 2019 when allegations around a culture of bullying at Wellington Zoo were aired in the media.

The council's code of conduct says councillors should avoid publicly criticising any employee in any way, but especially in ways that reflect on the competence and integrity of the employee.

Code of Conduct investigation canned

Lester decided to begin a code of conduct investigation before local body elections.

But he lost the mayoralty by a whisker to Andy Foster.

Foster held a meeting over the investigation with the view to understanding what happened, who said what to who, and whether anything further needed to be done about it.

He told the Herald at the time he was satisfied he could draw a line under the whole thing.

"He's [Woolf] accepted that he has said things that he should not have said, he's accepted also that those things have caused distress to some staff, and he has given an undertaking that those sort of things will not happen again."

Foster also wanted to avoid the cost of such an inquiry.

"Which frankly probably would have had very little real outcome", he said.

Another LGOIMA request made by the Herald revealed the associated cost for initial code of conduct inquiry discussions with employment law firm Dundas Street was $1851, excluding GST.

Foster would not be pressed on whether he thought the investigation amounted to a witch hunt, but said there could have been politicking involved because of its timing and the way "documents have been moved around".

Putting the issue to bed

Woolf has maintained he never breached the council's code of conduct but admitted he could have handled things better.

"In this situation there was no intent to upset people in a direct sense, it was more regarding policy and procedures, it wasn't aimed at one personality or another."

Speaking to the Herald on Friday, Woolf said he was not involved in the decision to withhold the information as it was an operational matter.

He said he was glad the council refused the information request at the time, as the complaint was still the subject of a live code of conduct investigation.

But he said now that process was over, he supported the Ombudsman's decision.

"We're public figures. When things crop up and it is of the public interest, then we need to be accountable for it and there needs to be transparency, but it also has to be handled fairly and reasonably."

Woolf said he was disappointed the issue had been "left to linger" for so long considering the comments in question were made almost two years ago.

He said the situation had not stopped him from standing up for his constituents.

Foster said Woolf had made good on his promise not to make such comments again.

But Woolf's past came back to bite him last month when Foster announced a new council committee structure, after an independent governance review.

Foster announced Woolf would be deputy chair of the Finance and Performance Committee.

But concerns were raised such a position would be inappropriate considering Woolf's history with the Zoo, a council-controlled organisation, which would come under the committee's remit.

Councillor Laurie Foon is expected to be appointed to the deputy chair position instead.

As to whether the deputy chair decision had been influenced by the code of conduct issue, Foster said it had.

"Yes, in the respect that Councillor Woolf wants the future work of the Finance and Performance Committee to be unimpeded by the past."

WCC spokesman Richard MacLean said the Ombudsman's decision would not change the council's decision-making process in the future.

"Every LGOIMA request received by the council is assessed on its merits, and the appropriate decision is made based on the facts and information available.

"This includes requests that concern the privacy interests of elected members, and there will be instances when it is not appropriate to release information about code of conduct matters."