Council in hot water over Fonterra freebie

19:30, Dec 13 2011
Bruce Gordon.
Horizons Regional Council chairman Bruce Gordon.

The Waikato Regional Council is under fire after staff and councillors were wined and dined at a Rugby World Cup match by dairy giant Fonterra.

But a councillor who accepted the freebie said he had done nothing wrong.

Horizons Regional Council chairman Bruce Gordon also accepted free tickets for a World Cup match, but defended his actions, saying there was no conflict of interest.

The criticism was sparked by Green Party co-leader Russel Norman, who said councillors should not have received gifts from an industry they were meant to regulate.

Waikato Regional Council chief executive Bob Laing was hosted at the bronze medal play-off between Wales and Australia in October, together with council chairman Peter Buckley and Norm Barker.

Cr Barker said the rugby offer was another chance for councillors to build relationships with senior Fonterra officials.

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"I didn't see a conflict of interest mainly because we have been working so hard to get real engagement with Fonterra and finally that's happening, and part of the process is getting to know each other.

"I'm also a dairy farmer and Fonterra supplier. Is that a conflict of interest?"

Cr Barker's views, however, are at odds with those of some colleagues, with one councillor saying she would have refused the ticket offer.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie wrote to chief executives this year cautioning them to stay away from World Cup freebies.

Details of Fonterra's World Cup hosting was made public by Dr Norman using information sourced under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

He said it was a concern the regional council had accepted "very expensive gifts" from an industry it was tasked with regulating.

In response, Mr Laing said the council was open about its desire to foster positive relationships with the dairy sector.

But Green Party Hamilton spokesman Mark Servian said the revelation was another sign the regional council was moving away from its core job of protecting the environment.

"Clearly what's happened is the fox is in the henhouse.

"The council's job is to keep these guys [Fonterra] honest. I'm not saying Fonterra is doing anything wrong but there is a conflict of interest."

Cr Barker was also hosted at another World Cup match by Mighty River Power.

Cr Jane Hennebry said it was up to individual councillors to decide whether the ticket offer was a conflict of interest, adding she would have declined the gift.

Last month the council's regulatory committee agreed to end its role in deciding which dirty dairying cases would be prosecuted in court after auditor-general Lyn Provost expressed concern with councillors' involvement in the process.

The decision was expected to be ratified by the full council today.

Ms Provost said there were "strong and longstanding conventions" against elected officials becoming involved in prosecution decisions. Removing councillors from the process would help prevent perceptions of political bias in such decisions. Fairfax NZ

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