Councillors' money secrets should be revealed

Secrecy surrounding the commercial interests of local authority councillors needs to end, the peak body for councils has told the government.

While MPs have a public register of interests, local councillors controlling billions of dollars of assets and paying hundreds of millions of dollars to contractors, are often shielded from public scrutiny by the policies of councils, despite a requirement in the Local Government Act that councils operate "in an open, transparent, and democratically accountable manner".

But Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) has told the government that it believes the model set by MPs needs to apply to local councillors, arguing that it would "strengthen public confidence in public bodies like local government".

While it does not believe the monetary value of assets needs to be revealed on public registers, or that candidates should be forced to reveal interests while running for office, it believes the inconsistent secrecy settings of councils need harmonising.

LGNZ's comments came as a submission to the Department of Internal Affairs' long-overdue review of the the Local Authorities (Members' Interests) Act 1968 (known as LAMIA), a report on which is to be handed to the new Minister of Local Government David Carter.

While the minister, who has been in the job for just a few days following the resignation of Nick Smith, says he is reserving judgment until he receives the report, a number of large councils refuse to make their registers public, with Auckland the least transparent of all, arguing it has an obligation to elected members to protect their privacy and commercial interests.

Sunday Star-Times has found that local councils have a mixed attitude to making public their registers of members' interests, and the reason seems to be that because LAMIA does not specify the need for a public register – in part because it was written in an era before contracting out – many have concluded they have no duty to have one.

Tauranga has one available online, but the reason seems to be that it thought that to be a legal requirement.

Accidentally perhaps, it has turned the council into a model of openness.

Wellington also has an online register, while Christchurch City told Sunday Star-Times it had one that was public but not online.

The majority of councils have agreed to have public registers, Christchurch City said. But not all councils have the same openness settings.

In Hamilton an ugly spat between councillors following a request by the Waikato Times to view the register, has not yet been resolved, with some members trying to keep their affairs under wraps.

Auckland Council, meanwhile, said privacy laws mean it should not make the register available, even though Manukau City Council, one of the seven amalgamated councils that formed Auckland Council, did have a public register.

In response to a Local Government Official Information Act request, by "anti-corruption activist" Penny Bright, the council's general counsel Wendy Brandon said: "The register will not be released in full in order to protect the privacy of elected members, information that is subject to an obligation of confidence and the commercial position of some elected members."

A spokesman for Dunedin City Council, which has been under fire over the city's costly stadium, said there is no requirement to have a public register, but the council is looking at whether it would be helpful.

Bright argues even legislating registers of members' interests is only a baby step towards reaching the transparency standard set by central government.

Bright is in a battle with Auckland Council saying she won't pay her rates until the council reveals details of the hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts it has with private companies to carry work out on its behalf. She also wants a public register of the interests of high-ranking council employees, who have the ability to award contracts to private firms.

Sunday Star Times