Spirit of openness is what's lacking

20:00, Apr 04 2014

Five years ago, there was a public outcry in Palmerston North after the Manawatu Standard reported that the city council had spent $25,000 on a Christmas tree for The Square.

There were letters and texts to the editor criticising what most ratepayers saw as an extravagance, and it was not a good look for the council. Shortly after the Standard revealed the cost, council chief executive Paddy Clifford contacted the newspaper to say there had been a mistake. The full cost of the tree was actually $36,000. While another influx of angry letters to the editor naturally ensued, Clifford's admission was an incredibly admirable act of public transparency and integrity.

That act stands in stark contrast to the city council's handling of its controversial $40 parking fine.

As revealed in today's Standard, the level of transparency around the fine, and specifically the legal force it would have if challenged by motorists who had incorrectly activated the meter, leaves a lot to be desired.

The council has been criticised by the Chief Ombudsman for refusing to publicly release legal advice it received that said a prosecution of someone who could show they simply paid for the wrong space was unlikely to stack up in court. The council's legal advisers said it should therefore use its discretion in waiving the fines of motorists who had make a mistake when activating the meter.

The council can quite rightly argue that the fact it waived more than 2900 fines demonstrates it has indeed used its discretion. The key point, though, is that those who received a $40 fine did not have all the information available to them to make a decision about whether the fine could be challenged successfully.

The strangest thing about the council's decision to withhold that information is that releasing it would have been unlikely to have had any impact on the vast majority of cases. Conceivably, it might not have changed the outcome for anyone with a $40 fine at all.

But instead of being transparent, the council opted to hide behind legal privilege. This is also strange because the well-established and important principle of legal privilege is essentially designed to protect the privacy of the client. The city council could have easily waived legal privilege and shared the information it received, which is effectively what the Chief Ombudsman said it should have done.

Mayor Jono Naylor is correct when he says the council has acted within the letter of the law, but it hasn't acted within the spirit of openness and transparency the people of Palmerston North can rightly expect it should. They've mishandled this situation, and they've been found out doing so.


Manawatu Standard