Back in August, the Council voted to open the Pirie Street bus tunnel to Not In Service diesel buses. The vote was informed by a paper written by Council transport officers, which made some definitive claims about the current use of the tunnel. One of them was:
Some years ago Stagecoach (now NZ Bus) and residents of Pirie Street negotiated a memorandum of understanding that out of service trolley buses could use the tunnel rather than the longer running through Newtown.
This is a pretty unequivocal statement – the casual reader would take from it that a written document had been agreed by local residents and the bus company. There’s only one problem – no such document exists. We made a request under the Local Government Official Information And Meetings Act for a copy of the document and received the following reply from the Council officer who wrote the paper:
I do not have, nor have I ever seen this memorandum of understanding, however a number of people [...] have spoken about an “understanding” or “agreement” being reached between the bus operator (formerly Stagecoach) and residents of Mt Victoria, again I am unsure if this was residents of Pirie Street or the Residents’ Association.
So far from being an actual document, it appears the officer knew that – at best – there had been some oral discussions between more or less similar parties. This seems a very very long way away from the unequivocal “fact” stated in the report, and does beg the question – did the officer set out to deliberately mislead Councillors and ratepayers alike? And importantly, if this particular “fact” has been manufactured, what other aspects of the officer’s paper are equally fictional? And to what degree did this influence the decision made by Councillors to permit the Not In Service buses?
These are important questions, as they go to the heart of what it means to be a public servant. The State Services Code of Conduct specifies that public servants “must be fair, impartial, responsible, and trustworthy”. Accordingly, we asked Gary Poole, WCC Chief Executive, to investigate the matter – and he promptly decided that there was no evidence of wrongdoing. The letter from Mr Poole’s Executive Officer states:
In considering the report to the committee I am satisfied that there is nothing to suggest that it was anything but impartial. The report and subsequent decision was supported by considerable discussion with and between Councillors, and contributed to by other parties …
While the inclusion of the phrase “memorandum of understanding” could convey the presence of a document, this was addressed both at the Pre Meeting Session to the Committee and the SPC Meeting.
This is a particularly torturous piece of bureaucratese and relies on the idea that there is some definition of “memorandum of understanding” other than the plain english one – and then appears to assert that the essentially misleading nature of the officer’s statement somehow didn’t matter anyway.
As ratepayers, we rely on our elected representatives to make good decisions on our behalf. And in turn, elected Councillors rely on the advice of officers to make informed judgements. So when officers decide to play fast and loose with the facts – and senior Council management choose to turn a blind eye to the ethical problems this creates – then it undermines both the quality of decision-making in the city and the credibility of the Council.
In our view, the ethical standards that are required from other State Sector staff – such as those working in core public sector agencies – should also be required from local government. There seems no compelling reason why Council officers should be allowed to exhibit a lower level of ethics than other public servants, and as this example illustrates, the credibility and quality of decision-making in our city is undermined when there are serious questions about the factual accuracy of the information Council officers present.