22 Nov 2017

Council luxury travel spend could go to Auditor-General

From Checkpoint, 5:47 pm on 22 November 2017

Two Auckland councillors are vowing to challenge a decision by the chief executive yesterday that blocked their motion at a committee meeting to discuss council spending on luxury travel.

It comes after a council report found $1.1 million was spent on international travel in the 20 months to August, with nearly half of that spent on 63 business-class flights. 

The motion was put by John Watson and Efeso Collins.

Mr Watson said the move by the chief executive, Stephen Town, was a deliberate attempt to stop the issue being discussed, but he believes it may not comply with the council's standing orders.

Having the chance to debate premium-class travel spending was important and Mr Town should not have been allowed to reject his motion to discuss it at yesterday's meeting, Mr Watson said.

He said it was an issue of public importance that needed to be challenged and he was taking advice on his options. 

"The unfortunate thing is, as the standing orders are written, it is the chief executive and the chair of the relevant committee who made the call, but we believe there has been a degree of collusion here with a number of parties to actually keep this off the public agenda." 

He said he'll raise it with Mr Town, but if that doesn't work he'll take the matter to the Ombudsman or the Auditor-General.

Mr Clow said he was "happy" with Stephen Town's decision and did not believe the standing orders had been breached.

Meanwhile, one councillor is defending his decision to fly business class two weeks ago, during the review into travel costs. 

Chris Darby joined Auckland mayor Phil Goff and the Māori Statuatory Board chair David Taipari in the front of the plane on a trip to an economic summit in China.

"After conducting a seven-hour council meeting, racing to my home, picking up a bag, busing to the airport, getting on an 11:30pm flight and 11 hours to Guangzhou ... getting off the flight at 5:30pm and having my first meeting with Chinese officials at 6:30pm ... that's where you realise that the body has to rest, and rest properly."

Mr Darby flew premium economy on the way home a day later to save money, but that meant he missed an important council meeting about the America's Cup. 

Mr Clow and 14 council staff also went on the trip, but they flew economy or premium.

Mr Goff declined to be interviewed about the council's travel expenses or his recent trip to China, but a spokesperson said all the flights were in line with council policy. 

The council said it was council policy to allow staff and politicians to accrue airpoints on work trips, but any points collected could only be used for work purposes.

It did not say how, or even if, it policed this policy.

Mr Darby said he might have collected points on a council-funded trip to Adelaide three years ago, but he wasn't worried about the rules because he never redeemed them.

"I'm one of those people that collects airpoints but never ever goes to get the credit for them. I'll have to check the statement, but I've never even looked at it."

He also said councillors wanting to stop business-class travel should also be prepared to give up their council-funded carparks, which he estimated was costing the ratepayer around $200,000 dollars a year.

A report reviewing the council's spending on travel, gifts and hospitality is due to be presented to the council in February or March.