Leading Nelson businessmen have spoken out against Nelson Mayor Aldo Miccio's personal Chinese business deal, saying it conflicts with his publicly-funded role.
Last week the Nelson Mail revealed that Mr Miccio is a shareholder, co-director and chairman of NZ Inc Shop, a business sourcing New Zealand products to sell through Chinese e-commerce site Tmall.
His parents and wife are also shareholders.
Mr Miccio met his co-director Yong York Zhang at a Nelson meeting arranged by the Nelson Regional Economic Development Agency. This year he travelled to China on two ratepayer-funded business trips to advance Nelson business interests, but says he did not conduct any personal business while on the trips. He is also strongly denying any conflict of interest with his mayoral role.
However, businessman, philanthropist and NZ King Salmon chairman Tom Sturgess said he had "deep concerns" about the situation.
"I have been very pleased that the mayor has shown a willingness to acknowledge people's concerns about it and to explain the situation, and I believe it is a question of judgment that is capable of being properly addressed by the auditor-general and the acting chief executive of Nelson City Council, to whom the mayor has referred the matter," Mr Sturgess said.
"I cannot help but continue to have concern about the broad issue and perception of the integrity of the mayor's office, and look forward to a full and frank discussion of their findings."
Port Nelson director, solicitor and Orinoco Winery owner Paul Le Gros, who accompanied Mr Miccio to China as part of a delegation in April, agreed with Mr Sturgess.
"What are good governance principles and the right ethos and ethics in these things?" he said. "It's that line between what you do for yourself and the public and where the roles cross over. It's a very razor-sharp edge you walk on."
Mr Le Gros said Mr Miccio was entitled to earn a living. However, in cultures where the office of mayor was held in high regard, "you just have to be that much more cautious".
Network Tasman chief executive Ian Kearney said that if it was a corporate situation, the company would be "extremely concerned" if a representative was conducting personal business alongside company business. "I don't think there's any suggestion that what he's done is illegal. But it would certainly be against what would be considered good or normal practice."
Businessman and former Nelson mayor Philip Woollaston said Mr Miccio had "got himself into an unfortunate situation".
He said the mayor was "ill-advised, at the very least" not to reveal to city councillors that he had burgeoning business interests in China before he went on the second of two ratepayer-funded trips there to conduct business for the city.
"He perhaps has been a little naive in not seeing the pitfalls in having both the private business relationship and making official trips to China in the very same area of business."
The referral to the auditor-general was "a wise step", he said, "but that may not dispel the perception that he's had his personal interests a little too close to the publicly-funded [trips]".
Mr Woollaston said Mr Miccio's actions now depended on if he was proposing to stand for a second term as mayor, something Mr Miccio has not ruled out.
"If he's looking to have a long-term career in politics, then I would think the wise course would be to put some distance between himself and the business interests in China." This could mean resigning as director and putting his involvement into an "arm's-length trust".
Mr Miccio said in a statement: "The way this situation has been portrayed is disappointing, and I can understand why ill-informed people would be concerned.
"It needs to be made very clear to help inform people that the opportunity came to me in my private capacity through my well-publicised active and ongoing role which I have with Bissi Ltd from before and during my term in office. The Local Government Act allows for elected members, both mayors and councillors, to have private interests, whether it be for not-for-profit entities or for-profit entities.
"The trip was not related to NZ Inc Shop at all, and no personal benefit at all gained from the trip, and hence no conflict of interest; plus all and any other requirements under the Local Government Act [have been met] also."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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