Saturday, September 26, 2020

Hood aerodrome: unanswered questions

The following article, which the Wairarapa Times-Age published this morning under my byline, began as a letter to the editor and just sort of grew. It's unlikely to be of much interest to readers outside the Wairarapa.

From the outset, there have been unanswered questions surrounding the proposal to spend $17 million upgrading Hood aerodrome. It wasn’t clear who was driving the initiative and we weren’t told, at least initially, how much money Masterton ratepayers were expected to contribute.

As time has passed, some answers have been provided. It took several days before Masterton District Council chief executive Kath Ross told the Times-Age the council would contribute $7 million on top of the $10 million coming from the government. Information subsequently provided to me by Ms Ross’s office suggests the council’s actual commitment will be $4.2 million, with an additional $2.75 million to be sought in the form of “grants, fees, charges and co-investment” – whatever that may mean. 

Not only does it all seem a bit woolly, but ratepayers are entitled to wonder why these figures weren’t disclosed at the start. After all, the people of Masterton will effectively be paying twice for the upgrade, both as taxpayers and ratepayers. And the key question which remains unanswered is: why?

Unfortunately the council remains evasive. Concerned that no convincing case had yet been made publicly for the Hood upgrade, I made an Official Information request to the council for documentation relating to the project.

My request sought all relevant information, including any business case prepared in support of the upgrade.

What I initially got was a letter providing some additional superficial detail about what the council proposes to do, but conspicuously omitting any cost-benefit analysis or substantiation of the project’s promised economic benefits.

Not satisfied with this response, I sought further information. I asked specifically for minutes of council discussions relating to the upgrade and for budget forecasts covering projected returns and/or deficits. Under the disclosure provisions of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, this information should have automatically been provided in response to my first request, but wasn’t.

I fared slightly better, but only slightly, on my second attempt. This produced the disclosure that there were no minutes relating to the decision to seek Provincial Growth Fund money for the upgrade, for the strange reason that councillors never formally adopted the proposal.

I was told the draft application to the PGF was “shared” with councillors in workshop sessions (how thoughtful of council officials to keep elected members in the loop). But not being regarded as official meetings, workshops happen out of the public view. So we have no idea what (if any) debate took place around the council table, or how rigorously (if at all) the proposal was assessed.

This seems an odd way to conduct council business, given that Masterton ratepayers will be required to contribute at least $4.2 million. That’s a lot of footpaths.

There was further discussion during a “Zoom briefing” of councillors under the Level 4 lockdown in April, but again no record was provided of what was said. It’s almost as if the lockdown was used as an excuse for the lack of transparency and due process.

The material provided to me by the MDC further revealed that councillors considered an item relating to the Hood development in a public-excluded session last year. All detail of that discussion was withheld on the ground that it might prejudice the council’s commercial operations.

Similarly, in its previous release of material to me, the council provided a briefing document supplied to local MPs and councillors, but blacked out all relevant figures relating to council investment in the project on the basis of “commercial sensitivity”. That document “conservatively” estimated economic benefits of $248-307 million from the Hood upgrade but didn’t explain how those figures were arrived at. For all we know, they could have been plucked out of the air.

As part of the second release of information I was also provided with a poorly written “executive summary”, of anonymous authorship, outlining the supposed costs and benefits of the upgrade. As with previously disclosed information about the project, this document was heavy on optimistic assumptions and positive-sounding buzzwords, but light on substantive data.

The executive summary concedes that the benefits of the upgrade are “uncertain” and positive outcomes are “not guaranteed”, in which case one might ask why the council is committing millions of ratepayer dollars to the project. Commercial risk is the realm of the private sector, where people gamble with their own money.

Most conspicuously, the documents fail to reveal who will use the improved aerodrome/airport and where the projected financial returns, assuming there are any, will come from. The projections rely heavily on the hope that scheduled air services will resume – but there’s no indication that any airline is eagerly waiting for Hood to be improved, and nothing to suggest that upgrading the aerodrome will magically make it profitable. Not one of the cheerleaders for the project has identified a single new user.

All we’re left with, after going through the documents released by the council,  are several mysterious references in the executive summary to “facilitated projects” at Hood, all detail of which was blacked out – again, on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.

We can conclude from this that the council is probably involved in negotiations with an undisclosed party or parties regarding some form of commercial activity at Hood, not necessarily related to passenger services, and has been persuaded that it’s the best if the public is kept in the dark.

Those with suspicious minds might wonder whether the council has been sweet-talked into bankrolling an ambitious, aviation-related project in which ratepayers could end up carrying the commercial risk – in which case we’re entitled to know what our officials are signing us up for.

Otherwise the rationale for the upgrade remains unclear. A cynical explanation is that taxpayers and Masterton ratepayers are bankrolling a Labour Party strategy to win the Wairarapa seat back from National.

Mayor Lyn Patterson’s column in the Times-Age last week did nothing to clarify things. Presented with another opportunity to mount a convincing case for the Hood upgrade, Ms Patterson resorted to more airy, feel-good platitudes about putting Masterton on the map.  

We’ve still seen nothing to indicate the upgraded aerodrome will generate an economic return and thus justify the investment of ratepayers’ money that might be better spent on other services or facilities. And perhaps even more disturbing is the impression that councillors have been passive spectators in whatever is proposed.

Best-case scenario: the council is secretly talking to a prospective Hood user who promises an economic bonanza but wants the ratepayers to pick up the tab. Worst-case scenario: both the council and the government are taking a massive punt with our money and we can only cross our fingers and hope for the best. Either way, the facts should be put before us. 


Hilary Taylor said...

Quite right. Well done Karl, and keep up the pressure. Any other articulated misgivings from locals? This project needs careful scrutiny, as all projects using public funds do. Quite astonishing.

Punch said...

Thank younger your vigilant work on this issue Karl. While it may be local issue, it is one that is sadly typical of many old fashioned pork-barrel projects proposed the length and breadth of the country. Why does Gisborne, for instance, need 45 million dollars spent to upgrade a swimming pool and surf clubrooms. I find that as big, if not a bigger, scandal than the aerodrome with no planes!

Trev1 said...

It is truly frightening that public money is being frittered away on political boondoggles like this while the country plunges into record debt and the Reserve Bank cranks out a billion dollars every 3 weeks like a South Pacific Zimbabwe. New Zealand is facing a bought election to be followed thereafter by financial ruin.

David McLoughlin said...

It was really good to open yesterday's paper and see your article across two pages, Karl.

I was not impressed by the Mayor's reply that it was "unfortunate" this spending was not discussed in a public meeting -- completely ignoring your story's revelation that it was discussed in a "workshop" -- these "workshops" have been used by councils for years to avoid public scrutiny or the creation of any documents or minutes. Such meetings should be made illegal, as the only purpose of them is to avoid the Official Information and Meetings Act requirement that meetings be held in public.

I was more than not impressed by Emily Ireland's editorial on this. I was disappointed. She sort of tut-tutted that these millions were approved without a council meeting (ignoring the reality that a "workshop" is a council meeting that is designed deliberately to break the law). She went on to affirm the mayor's fatuous comment that such pork barrelling was "something to be welcomed," and then she said there should be more of it, suggesting the council seek some for the town hall.

I suppose a local paper that is very dependent on the goodwill of the local council for stories and advertising will be wary of biting the mayor's hand, but the editorial is disappointing nonetheless. On the other hand, one should also probably congratulate the paper for running your article, Karl, but also wonder why the paper's taxpayer-funded "local democracy reporter" -- who replaced a reporter paid for by the newspaper -- isn't pursuing such stories.

I note that on page one and seven, that taxpayer-funded reporter was in raptures over Featherston getting a pile of pork for its war memorials, something that also excited Emily in her editorial.

On the other hand again -- there is always another hand -- at least we have an independent daily newspaper in the Wairarapa -- one of the very few places in this country to enjoy what used to be everywhere.

It's a shame that the details of this continuing airfield scandal are only emerging from the darkness of council "workshops" because of you, Karl, but at least you are shining lights on it. Ka pai!

Karl du Fresne said...

I agree that it was a disappointingly lame editorial and a predictably inadequate response from Lyn Patterson. The questions remain unanswered - most notably, who's driving this?

Andy Espersen said...

You write "this is unlikely to be of interest to readers outside the Wairarapa". Well, perhaps.
But may I comment that I wish we had old-fashioned, investigative journalists of your caliber retired here in Nelson.

David McLoughlin said...

They've put you online, Karl, and tacked the mayor at the end

Ka pai ano!

Antipodean Collections said...

Hi there Karl. I'm starting to form the opinion that New Zealand may desperately need a body or person to or by whom local councils should be accountable. In Australia every state has their own Ombudsman for Local Government and in Victoria when we lived there that person was able to unseat a mayor who got herself there by foul means.
Here I seem to see the Local Councils selling off water rights to overseas companies against locals' wishes, endless costs and problems from building consents etc (and the RMA!!), in X (a tourist mecca where I live now) a mayor who has twice got a person (last time no longer living within the local area) to split the opposition vote so (s)he got re-elected again (despite a large proportion of the people not wanting here back) etc etc. Has there ever been any talk of this in New Zealand? And do you see their role also as being often unconstitutional and often valid grounds for dissent? I know Ombudsmen are essentially to right administrative failings but still ....?
Craig Wallace
(but can't say where for fear of legal action)

Karl du Fresne said...

The Office of the Ombudsmen does have jurisdiction over local government but I don't know how rigorously they exercise their powers. I certainly don't see many cases reported.