Newly-released emails show mayor Vanessa van Uden was reprimanded by Queenstown council’s boss over backroom lobbying.
The emails, only released by the council after Mountain Scene complained to the Ombudsman, show ex-boss Adam Feeley was “deeply concerned” about “behind the scenes” lobbying of the mayor over a swim school’s survival.
Writing to Van Uden in April last year, at almost 10pm, Feeley says lobbying by Wakatipu Swim School owner Jane Hughes “lacks transparency and probity”.
He says the mayor passing on to councillors Hughes’ email - pleading to be the sole swimming provider at the council-run Queenstown Events Centre - risked a judicial review and possibly an Auditor-General probe into councillors’ decision.
If that wasn’t enough of a bombshell, Van Uden, who was re-elected on a platform of transparency and cost-cutting, shoots back: “Arguably much lobbying is behind the scenes so why in particular would
this lack transparency and probity?”
She admits, however, her move was “not the greatest, for sure”.
The saga centred on a council vote in May last year to appoint a single swim school at the Events Centre.
Councillors ignored Hughes’ plea and appointed its in-house service, Aqualand Swim School.
As Feeley told the Scene at the time, it was inappropriate for Wakatipu Swim School to communicate with councillors directly because submissions were required to go directly to an evaluation panel.
The following month, the council admitted Feeley wrote two emails to the mayor but refused to release them “to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through free and frank expression of opinions”.
Exactly a year afterwards, the council did a U-turn and released the emails after what info gatekeeper Barbara East says was “discussion with the Office of the Ombudsman”.
Van Uden’s response to Feeley, on April 29, says councillors were just getting another point of view.
“We are each individually able to deal with this as we do it every day.”
However, if they had chosen Hughes’ school “that would have been a significant risk”, she says.
“But that could be dealt with should [the] situation arise by advice from you.”
Feeley’s follow-up email, on April 30, warns Van Uden bypassing an evaluation panel is “not permitted or appropriate”.
“We would take a very dim view of Fulton Hogan, Downer or similar parties contacting elected members where there was a new infrastructure contract going out to tender and being evaluated by an internal team.”
Van Uden is unrepentant, saying the situation “resolved itself” and she “never had a problem with it being passed on in the beginning”.
When asked, Feeley confirms it wasn’t the only time he warned elected reps for lobbying or breach of process.
“But without reviewing past documents I could not reference specifics.”
Concerns over closed-door discussions have dogged the council, after it scrapped committees, retreated into secret workshops and enacted policies to issue carefully-worded statements rather than allow managers to be interviewed.
In September 2014, Van Uden vowed she wanted councillors’ expense claims to be regularly posted on the council’s website - but it’s yet to happen.
For the full emails visit: scene.co.nz