22 Dec 2009

Chair says councillors lacked information to avoid legal breach

9:53 pm on 22 December 2009

The chair of Canterbury Regional Council says four councillors who broke the law by voting in a water management debate were not advised they needed a special exemption to take part.

The Auditor General found that the councillors, Mark Oldfield, Bronwen Murray, Angus McKay and Pat Harrow, breached the Local Authorities Act by voting on an issue in which they each had a financial interest, and that their mistake was a criminal offence.

The council chair, Alec Neill, says the issue need not have reached the Auditor-General at all, had the councillors been advised they needed to seek a special exemption to take part.

Alec Neill was referring to the former chair, Sir Kerry Burke, who was ousted from his role partly as a result of conflict over the water management debate.

Sir Kerry says he is not surprised the complaint was upheld, and the reputations of his ex-colleagues have been permanently damaged. He says the councillors' actions were an exercise in what he calls raw and rotten politics, which have now been exposed to full public gaze.

But Mr Neill says despite the findings, he has full confidence in the four councillors.

MP pleased at outcome

The Auditor-General's investigation began after a complaint by the Christchurch Central MP and Labour Party spokesperson on water quality, Brendon Burns.

He believed the councillors had a conflict of interest when they took part in a vote on whether the council should implement a water management charge.

Mr Burns says he's pleased the Auditor-General has upheld his concerns and clarified the law. It shows, he says, there is a clear process for councillors to follow in situations where they have a personal interest in the outcome.

Prosecution unlikely

On the advice of the Crown Law office, the councillors will not be prosecuted, as a conviction is unlikely. Instead, the Auditor-General's office will work with the regional council to ensure its members are better educated about the law.