Womad freebies raise conflict issues

TARYN UTIGER
Last updated 05:00 12/03/2014

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The council may have axed its fund to underwrite Womad but most councillors are still accepting free tickets to the event.

Yesterday the Taranaki Daily News quizzed all New Plymouth District councillors about accepting free passes to Womad, and at least nine of the 15 have pocketed three-day double passes worth $498 each.

The question came a month after the council voted to dissolve a $400,000 fund used as an insurance policy for many high profile events in the district.

Although the fund was never drawn on it had helped to secure events in the past, including Womad.

The axing of the fund leaves Taft and many other organisations with no back-up plan if a major event fails.

So far mayor Andrew Judd, deputy mayor Heather Dodunski and councillors Shaun Biesiek, Colin Johnston, and John McLeod have formally declared to the council they have accepted the two free three-day passes from Taft.

Councillors Murray Chong, Richard Handley and Richard Jordan have also accepted the double passes, but as of yesterday were yet to declare them, as the council's code of conduct stipulates they must.

Councillors Gordon Brown and Len Houwers turned down the free tickets, saying accepting them would have been a conflict of interest.

Keith Allum accepted a ticket but has returned it.

Mr Brown struck out at the council for allowing people to accept tickets they have not paid for.

"I do not believe that it is appropriate for council officers to accept freebies from organisations that we fund . . . and I conveyed that to the chief executive, Barbara McKerrow, a few months ago," he said.

"It's a terrible thing for ratepayers to pay a high price for their own tickets and then see the front row of a concert filled with councillors who were there on a free pass," he said.

"I don't accept freebies as a councillor. Nor will I for the next three years.

"Personally I'm not comfortable making decisions on funding for organisations while accepting free tickets."

Mr Houwers echoed Mr Brown's concerns and said he had been to Womad before and enjoyed it but would never accept free tickets to it.

"I just felt it was a conflict of interest. If I'm sitting there determining the budget for events funding then I don't want to be seen to be compromised because I had free tickets to something," he said.

"My choice to turn down the tickets is no reflection on the event or the organisers; Womad is good for the district, but I felt uncomfortable accepting free tickets."

His decision to turn down the free double pass could be seen as stupid, he said, but he was making a point and sticking to his principles.

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Mr Judd said while he had accepted the free tickets he was working at the event.

He had to give an opening speech on the Friday night, attend a breakfast on the Saturday, a dinner on the Sunday and meet with key sponsors and out-of-town dignitaries.

"Another reason it is important for us to be there is so we can check the event was delivered as it was sold to us and that we get what we funded," he said.

Mr Handley, who accepted the tickets, said there had been considerable informal discussion about whether it was OK to accept free passes.

As the tickets were more than $75 they had to be immediately declared to the chief executive for the inclusion in the register of interests.

Mr Handley said the disclosure meant the councillors were not hiding anything from the public.

Councillors Grant Coward, Craig McFarlane, Marie Pearce and Howie Tamati have yet to respond to the Daily News and did not disclose any free tickets to the council.

- Taranaki Daily News

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