Dave Cull lacks transparency in secret deal

Dunedin mayor Dave Cull  seems to have so far escaped local scrutiny but is being criticised from further afield  for his “gentlemen’s agreement” payments to Pete Hodgson that have not been documented.

Timaru Herald (Stuff) Dunedin mayor defends MP deal

Dunedin Dave Cull is defending a “gentleman’s” agreement which saw a former MP paid $3400 for lobbying following a handshake deal.

Documents released under the Official Information Act reveal that former Dunedin North MP Pete Hodgson was paid by the council to lobby the Government not to strip core functions of Ag Research Limited from Invermay, near Dunedin.

The council said the main point of contact for the deal with Hodgson was Cull, but could not locate a single email, contract or any other document relating to the agreement. Hodgson had provided “lobbying and advocating” on behalf of council, and that he had “contributed” to a letter to Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce and a submission written to the board of Ag Research.

“Mr Hodgson did not provide any reports relating to his services,” governance support officer Grace Ockwell said.

This isn’t a good look – especially for a mayor who has campaigned on improving transparency.

The Taxpayer’s Union broke this story: QUESTIONS TO BE ANSWERED ABOUT PAYMENTS BY DUNEDIN CITY COUNCIL TO FORMER MP

And: Payments by Dunedin City Council to former MP with no documentation

When I put it to Cull on Sunday (the story was released early and then withdrawn until yesterday) he responded:

What you are getting Pete is misinformation. I don’t negotiate contracts or employ anyone except our chief executive, and that with Council. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Local Govt in NZ knows that. And Mr Hodgson did considerably more in this instance than write a couple of letters: including researching, analyzing, attending meetings and giving reports. He is now assisting without payment.

It appears that the page on the Taxpayers Union site has now been taken down anyway. Perhaps they have realized that a good deal of what they are claiming is untrue.

It appears top be accepted as true.

Southern neighbours aren’t impressed. Christchurch Press editorial Gentlemen sign contracts too:

The standards that apply to council administration in the south should be no less rigorous than in Auckland city or the Whangarei district. Why should ratepayers in Dunedin tolerate a more easy-going attitude towards the spending of their money than anywhere else, just because of a romantic notion that southerners are somehow more honourable? Actually, they aren’t.

In matters involving public money, it is absolutely essential that the principles of transparency and accountability are upheld.

And this is a mayor who campaigned on a record of increased transparency.

The existence of the deal only became public when documents were released under the Official Information Act. It is obviously difficult to know if any other work has been paid for under similar gentlemen’s agreements because, by definition, documentation probably does not exist.

This is an important point. How many more “gentlemen’s agreements” might there be?

Southland Times editorial Time, gentlemen, please …

Could you smell the port and stale cigar smoke on Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull’s breath as he defended the “gentleman’s agreement” under which his council paid former MP Pete Hodgson for lobbying?

Mr Hodgson was paid $3400 for his work helping the council advocate that Invermay retain its core Ag Research functions. He was plausibly the best person for the job. But it was done on a handshake with nary a contract – and all that tedious accountability that goes with it – in sight.

Much as Mr Cull may apply a rosily nostalgic gloss to this as a gentleman’s way of doing business in the south, it isn’t.

Hasn’t been, we would like to think, for ages. Not since the days when distinctions were drawn between gentlemen and the rank and file.

A gentleman’s agreement, says Oxford, is binding in honour but not legally enforceable.

It may come as disappointing news to the council, but in these unmannerly times legal enforceability is not regarded as a tiresome detail, let alone a damned impertinence.

Particularly where the expenditure of public money is concerned.

Mr Cull would have us understand that he isn’t, for one moment, saying he would be comfortable if the council always negotiated contracts verbally.

After all, not everyone’s a gentleman.

But when the agreement is with a sound chap like Hodgson, the mayor apparently cannot see the difficulty in the absence of either a contract specifying what would be required, nor any follow up report about what, exactly, was delivered.

Things are so vague that though his council says Mr Cull was the main point of contact with Hodgson, the mayor says he wasn’t.

Almost a shame, then, that somebody didn’t think to keep notes on a file, or something.

And will all due modesty Mr Hodgson says that as a former minister of research, science and technology he was better placed than anyone to lobby on behalf of the council.

Mr Hodgson says the fact that nothing was written up “would probably reflect their trust in me”.

As far as the public is concerned, what this should reflect is the untrustworthiness of all involved.

A council, a mayor and a former minister of the Crown should collectively and individually know full well that this was dodgy and then some.

The Taxpayers’ Union, while acknowledging that it isn’t an eye-watering amount, detects that the council isn’t applying the most basic internal controls.

Exactly. On this evidence, alone, the Auditor General should get involved.

The very real public concern has to be wider than this single, inglorious, incident.

Because Dunedin doesn’t lack for gentlemen.

What else has been happening down there in that stale old club of theirs?

Again the obvious question asked.

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