Headline-grabbing comments justifying Queenstown council’s brutal cost-cutting drive in 2013 have proved false – but the council won’t apologise.
In April 2013, a confidential consultation report, leaked to Mountain Scene, made stinging criticism of the council’s consents processing arm, Lakes Environmental, which was later dissolved and brought in-house.
The report gave a specific anonymous example of a commercial development in a commercial zone taking 22 months to process and costing nearly $200,000, including consultant fees, despite being “relatively straightforward”.
But according to the council’s own figures, pinning costs and delays on Lakes Environmental was wrong.
Council boss Mike Theelen, who expresses “regret”, says it didn’t necessarily act badly by withholding information for three years.
Then council boss Adam Feeley repeated the ’22-month consent’ story at a conference in Wanaka in May 2013, saying it left a tough commercial developer “virtually in tears”.
Mountain Scene can reveal the consent in question was for car company GWD Russell Ltd’s Frankton HQ.
Council’s figures show the consent was processed in 61 days – well within the 70 days allowed for notified consents.
Also, the non-complying consent, which drew six objections, was publicly notified at GWD’s request.
The bill from Lakes Environmental and hearing commissioners was $28,000 – although GWD’s total cost, including consultants, was “well over $200,000”, chairman Graeme Hill says.
Former Lakes Environmental planning boss Brian Fitzpatrick, who passed the council figures to Scene, fought the council to release the information for three years.
It was finally released mid-last year, after Feeley had left and in the wake of an Ombudsman’s complaint.
Fitzpatrick says his beef is with how Feeley handled his request.
“If the initial statements had been made in error then perhaps an expression of regret may have been adequate,” Fitzpatrick says.
“But when information that would clarify the truth has been withheld for three years, that can only be seen as deliberate and something more is required.”
Fitzpatrick says the comments about delays and cost were “defamatory” of Lakes Environmental staff and they went into the report despite doubts being raised over the truth.
Feeley couldn’t be reached for comment.
Theelen says he assumes the council withheld the information for three years “with what it believed was the correct information and the best intention”.
He adds: “I’ve said to Brian, I understand what his concerns are, I don’t necessarily agree they’re as significant as he makes out, but they are also very historic and I don’t see any point in visiting those.”
But shouldn’t City Hall apologise if it makes a mistake? Theelen: “I don’t think I’m in a position to make any apology at this stage.”
GWD’s Hill, who lives at Lake Hayes, is unrepentant about criticising Lakes Environmental, describing the consent process as a “frustrating time”.
“The cost to me ballooned out to well over $200,000 – and that was caused mainly by Lakes Environmental wanting to put everything through consultants rather than talk to me, which added to the cost.”
He tells Scene Fitzpatrick is a “nice guy” but his staff were “quite unreasonable”.