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Ombudsman asks SWDC to release water report

Ombudsman Peter Boshier. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

The Ombudsman has found that South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] incorrectly refused an official information request from media.

In March, Local Democracy Reporting Service asked SWDC for the December 2021 report to council staff addressing the consentability and affordability of the proposed shortlist of options for Featherston’s wastewater.

It is understood the report detailed long-term options for wastewater treatment, which had a cost of from $30 million to $215m.

SWDC refused the request, citing section 7(2)(f)(i)1 of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 [LGOIMA] – “maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinions by or between or to members or officers or employees of any local authority”.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier, who investigated a complaint from media about the refusal, has now asked the council to release the information it withheld.

Boshier said there was “clear public interest in its release, given the nature of the project and the time that has passed since the last significant release of information to the public”.

In 2017, SWDC applied for a consent for upgrades to its Featherston wastewater operation, but public opposition led to a series of hearings, which were cancelled three times.

In March 2020, SWDC canned the Featherston proposals, and started again with its new infrastructure partner, Wellington Water.

A long list of options went out for engagement in late 2020.

Councillors received a shortlist of options and cost estimates in February 2021, but these were never made public.

Wellington Water said the options it presented to the council in February 2021 were “very expensive” and the council asked for further information on options that were more affordable and consentable.

In December 2021 after reviewing the shortlist Wellington Water presented a modified shortlist to council staff.

Elected members have not seen this shortlist, despite some councillors and community board members making pleas for the information in public meetings.

Boshier has now recommended the council release the report to media.

“Having reviewed the information, I agree that it is expressed in a fairly technical and moderate way,” Boshier said.

“Some of the information contained in the report is already in the public domain.

“While the report at issue is in draft form, I do not accept that its release would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.

“While this is not determinative, the information is not expressed in such a way that is typically associated with free and frank expression of opinion.”

Boshier has asked SWDC to notify the Ombudsman staff by October 18 what steps would be taken to give effect to his recommendation.

The Ombudsman also found that SWDC took longer than the statutory timeframe to respond to the initial information request and the council has since apologised to media for this.

Under section 32 of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, a public duty is imposed on the council to observe the Chief Ombudsman’s recommendation from the 21st working day after the date of the recommendation [released October 4].

The public duty applies unless before that day, the council, by resolution at a meeting of the council, decides otherwise and records that decision in writing.

Featherston’s wastewater treatment plant is currently operating on an extended expired consent from Greater Wellington Regional Council.

The extension is due to end in 2023.

Wellington Water’s short-term solution, which would cost $16 million, maintains primary discharge to Donald’s Creek and land-based irrigation trials at Hodder Farm.

SWDC did not wish to comment on the Ombudsman’s investigation at this stage. – NZLDR

  • Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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