A Whangārei District councillor has publicly supported the $136 million Oruku Landing conference and event centre – ahead of a council decision on the proposed facility.
Councillor Gavin Benney has spoken – as a Whangārei District (WDC) councillor – in favour of the centre in a Northland Development Corporation (NDC) media release.
The media release was sent to the Northern Advocate in the middle of a month-long public submission period on the controversial centre, and ahead of WDC’s council decision on whether to go ahead with the facility.
WDC Mayor Sheryl Mai did not comment specifically on whether she thought Benney was in breach of the council’s elected members code of conduct in doing this. She said councillors had been well informed about their obligations around impartiality.
WDC councillors will on Friday decide whether to proceed with the conference centre.
Benney’s 28 October media release was in support of the proposed Oruku Landing development going ahead. He said Northlanders should keep an open mind about Oruku Landing, and that the $60 million government funding towards it was not to be sneezed at.
Benney said the centre would bring people to Whangārei, as had been the case with Local Government New Zealand’s recent conference in Blenheim, a city of 28,000 people.
He also commented on the private development in Northland Development Corporation (NDC)’s wider Oruku Landing, saying its hotel and apartments were something the city had been “screaming out for”.
“I would say trust your councillors. We are trying to make this affordable for you. Believe in this project as it is a great project for the region. I encourage people to learn about what Oruku Landing will bring to Whangārei and put their support behind it,” Benney said in the release.
WDC’s elected members’ code of conduct includes reference to common law rules about bias.
“The question is not limited to actual bias, but relates to the appearance or possibility of bias reflecting the principle that justice should not only be done, but should be seen to be done. Whether or not members believe they are not biased is irrelevant,” the code said.
“The most common risks of non-pecuniary bias are where “Members’ statements or conduct indicate that they have predetermined the decision before hearing all relevant information (that is, members have a ‘closed mind’) …”, it said.
Mai said all WDC councillors were aware of needing to consider bias.
“I would like to stress that councillors’ induction process includes thorough and robust instruction on the code of conduct and predetermination/bias,” Mai said.
“I expect all councillors to understand their obligations in relation to decision making and matters of conflict of interest.”
Benney has also appeared as a WDC councillor in two videos on the Oruku Landing development’s Facebook page.
The first on 20 October was entitled “How will the community benefit from Oruku?”. The second on 26 October was headed “WDC Councillor Gavin Benney discusses the conference and events market and why Whangārei should support the Oruku Landing Conference and Events Centre.”
Benney told the Northern Advocate he had not breached the council’s elected members’ code of conduct with his comments.
“I can assure you that I most certainly have an open mind on this subject,” Benney said of voting on the centre.
“I believe the public should know where councillors stand on issues and it is our duty to ensure the public know as much as possible so that they can make a decision. That obviously needs to be balanced with our decision making.”
Benney said his media release comments were consistent with numerous public meetings. He said he was supportive of projects that brought economic development to Northland.
He advocated for partnering with central government to increase its funding into the region for projects such as the four lane highway, new hospital and better roading. It was not about whether WDC supported the project but whether the council was prepared to put ratepayers’ money into a conference and events centre, he said.
Meanwhile WDC’s councillor Ken Couper also appeared as a WDC councillor in an Oruku Landing Facebook Page video post on 9 November, outlining aspects he will consider for Friday’s decision. Couper said he did not believe his post was for or against the development.
“I don’t accept that my post publicly supports or otherwise the Oruku Landing project,” Couper said.
“I discuss some of the points, for and against, that I will be taking into consideration when I make my decision and encourage people to participate in the consultation process,” he said.
“It is premature to say what my decision will be.”
Benney did not specifically respond to questioning about whether he was expecting to take part in discussion and vote in Friday’s WDC’s decision. Couper did not respond specifically to this question either.
Mai said the decision whether or not to participate in formal council discussion and voting was made by individual councillors.
“If any councillor feels he or she is unable to take part in the decision-making process without bias they can withdraw from the discussion and the vote,” she said.
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