Emily Ireland
emily.ireland@age.co.nz

The Office of the Auditor-General [OAG] has revealed flaws in record-keeping for Masterton’s civic facility project decisions.

The OAG confirmed this in a statement released yesterday.

It said when Masterton District Council decided on June 26, 2019, to progress the option of a new civic facility to public consultation, it had advice from the project’s Steering Group not to proceed with the project at that time.

At this stage, the council was considering options on the current town hall site.

The Steering Group noted that “there is not a demonstrated need for the project, it does not represent value for money, and the group has significant concerns about the affordability of the project”.

They recommended that the council consult on “not proceeding with a civic/events centre at this time… and to consult on complete demolition of all buildings on the town hall site in the interim”.

Despite this advice, the council voted to consult on three options: complete demolition [$2 million]; complete demolition with a new events centre [$17.5m]; or build a new events centre, retain the facade, and seismically upgrade the municipal and civil defence building [$22m].

This decision was made in public exclusion, and the OAG found there was no record of the council’s reaction to the Steering Group’s concerns or why it did not follow the group’s advice.

OAG inquiries manager David Lemmon said where a decision was made contrary to advice, “it is advisable to record the reasons for the decision in order to be able to evidence the rationale for it”.

“This step can allay any potential concerns that advice was ignored or not properly considered when making decisions about spending public money.

“It also supports public trust and confidence.

“In the future, the council should ensure that it records the reasons for key decisions, particularly where those decisions differ from advice it has received.”

Lemmon said that, since these events, the council had “taken steps to improve the transparency of decision-making, including keeping fuller minutes of key discussions and decisions”.

Ultimately, the 2019 resolution was revoked in 2020 and replaced with two options for consultation
in the council’s Annual Plan.

The preferred option was to “demolish the town hall only and retain the facade, municipal buildings, and civil defence building, and explore the design, cost, and location, of a new multipurpose facility that may include a library”.

The alternative option was to “demolish the existing buildings and facade, and build a new multipurpose facility encompassing space for events and a new library at the most appropriate location for such a facility”.

At the end of 2020, councillors voted 9-2 in a public excluded meeting that the preferred location of the civic facility be “at the north end of town”.

This vote informed the 2021 Long-Term Plan, which set the budget of the civic facility at just over $30m.

The most recent estimate, contingency-inclusive, was just over $70m.

Lemmon said the OAG had received complaints about aspects of the council’s decision-making on the civic facility.

“These included concerns about the business case for the civic facility and whether the council had appropriately considered alternative options, particularly refurbishing and redeveloping the current town hall.

“One complainant also suggested the four councillors, who were trustees of Masterton Trust Lands Trust, might have had a conflict of interest.”

The OAG found the council took reasonable and appropriate steps regarding the conflict of interest.

“Given the significance of the civic facility project to the council, our appointed auditor will take an ongoing interest in the project,” Lemmon said.

Masterton Mayor Lyn Patterson welcomed the advice from the OAG and said suggested improvements to processes were already being addressed.

“The council now aims to provider fuller minutes on the reasons for key decisions and has organised further conflict of interest training for elected members and staff.”

Other elected members were approached for comment.

Councillors Brent Gare and Tina Nixon, who were both elected in late 2019, responded.

Gare said he was “happy to have received the report” and noted many issues raised have “either been or are currently being addressed”.

Nixon said the OAG findings solidified the reasons why she had pushed for a review.

“All of us need to take responsibility for things that have happened.

“What we need to do when we make a mistake is make it right.”

A separate Ombudsman investigation of the civic facility process was still underway.

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