If perception’s everything, the council has work to do


Queenstown’s council has been cleared of wrongdoing over a special housing area application from boss Adam Feeley’s family trust. But David Williams reports the Auditor-General’s investigation reveals a series of mis-steps - and perhaps a whiff of arrogance.

Queenstown’s council admits it has lost the PR battle over chief executive Adam Feeley’s conflict of interest.

Mayor Vanessa van Uden won’t talk to Mountain Scene about it.

But she told the Auditor-General Lyn Provost’s office the application for fast-tracked housing by Feeley’s family trust, the Rafa Trust, has hurt public confidence in the council.

The mayor adds she doesn’t think its stench will be significant in the long term, according to Provost’s report.

Councillor Cath Gilmour - who also won’t be interviewed - shares Van Uden’s view.

Gilmour told the Auditor-General’s office all councillors had their integrity questioned during the public submission process for special housing areas.

“This reduced public confidence in the council’s process for considering special housing area proposals and this, in turn, made sensitivities about Arrowtown worse.”

Provost’s office launched an investigation in late May after being contacted by several concerned ratepayers.

None of them would talk either - for fear of commercial retribution.

Provost felt there were sufficient questions to probe further; questions about trust and confidence in the council and how its boss could participate in such a process.

Her report, released last Friday, cleared the council, chief executive and mayor of wrongdoing. But that’s not to say their records are unblemished.

Did Feeley prepare the housing accord and twist the process to his advantage?

No, Provost says. He had some involvement but no significant influence or substantive contribution.

When did Feeley decide to apply for fast-tracked status?

On November 20 last year, he told Provost’s office. He didn’t tell the mayor until November 25 - after he’d worked out how the conflict could be managed. But in the meantime he’d checked with the council’s planning manager, Marc Bretherton, that his family’s land met the special housing area criteria.

Before Feeley disclosed his conflict, Bretherton sent him a copy of another expression of interest - for “a significantly larger development” - something the planning manager wouldn’t have done if he’d known his boss’ intention.

Feeley’s conflict was managed appropriately, Provost’s report says. The council even checked with the Auditor-General’s office they were doing the right thing.

But then Van Uden and Feeley failed to follow its advice - to get legal advice and check Feeley’s employment contract.

Van Uden told the Otago Daily Times last week she had a “real aversion to unnecessarily spending ratepayers’ money on lawyers”.

In saying that, the mayor sought legal advice after the Auditor-General’s office announced its inquiry - to ensure it was still able to consider the expressions of interest, including the Rafa Trust.

Feeley refuses to take phone calls about the report.

Feeley’s contract says he can’t enter contracts, relationships, business interests or activities that conflict with the council or his responsibilities, or reflect badly on the council or its public perception.

The Auditor-General says it’s not clear such an exercise of judgement was made.

Feeley didn’t sign a form disclosing conflicts of interest because, the report says, “he saw no point”.

That’s “unfortunate”, Provost says, adding that a chief executive should lead by example and the form is not discretionary for other employees.

Also, after disclosing his conflict to Van Uden, Feeley asked the mayor for confidentiality from councillors.

Provost says the conflict should have been disclosed publicly from the outset.

That would have avoided speculation and adverse publicity.

Feeley left several public meetings before special housing areas were discussed but his reason for leaving wasn’t noted.

After his conflict had been internally disclosed his monthly reports still referred to special housing areas - although the items were penned by Bretherton.

Bretherton’s fortnightly updates also continued to update Feeley on special housing areas past last November.

Despite his conflict, he received emails from the public and councillors. Occasionally, he would contribute to a response or suggest how staff should respond.

None of that was viewed as good practice.

The mayor gets credit for a couple of things. It was her suggestion the council call for expressions of interest, as opposed to mandating certain areas be developed. Also, it was she who stepped in to deal with senior planning staff after Feeley declared his conflict.

“She has felt like both mayor and chief executive,” the Provost report says.

Van Uden told the Auditor-General that recommendations to councillors over Arrowtown’s special housing areas would have been more decisive had the chief executive not been conflicted and had overseen the issue.

The Auditor-General says the conflict affected Feeley’s ability to meet his responsibilities under the Local Government Act.

The chief executive and the mayor didn’t think this through, Provost’s office says.

Passing responsibility for special housing areas to Bretherton appeared to work well, the report acknowledges.

Provost’s general comments are that public perceptions are important. “It is not enough that the official is honest, they must be seen to be so,” her report says.

“Even adequately managed conflicts can lead to public perception problems.”