Challenging the arguments of council officers in Council meetings can often lead to angry points of order from certain councillors and rebuke from the mayor, and his deputy in particular, for ‘criticising the officers’. Heavens! However getting into public debates with Council officers in the media or on blog sites is something I would never normally do. The mayor and councillors who support the political back-down on harbour reclamation should front up rather than officers.
However a Council statement officially ‘attributed to Dr Roger Blakeley Chief Planning Officer’ released by Council communications people last night challenging the veracity and fairness of my Daily Blog guest post does require a response.
Carefully skirting around the serious matters I raised in the article, Dr Blakeley, chooses to muddy the waters by challenging my use of the phrase ‘legally undefendable’ as the reason given by officers for their refusal to defend the council’s Unitary Plan policy of making harbour reclamation ‘non-complying’, and urging a back-down from this policy by the Council at a meeting on 12 February.
Dr Blakeley accuses me of ‘putting words in officers’ mouths’, which he protests is ‘inaccurate and unfair’. Frankly this is a straw man. The words used were not in quotation marks, not attributed to a named person and were actually taken from a report in the NZ Herald, but they are a pretty fair descriptive précis of the legalistic arguments made by the officers at the time, and indeed by Dr Blakeley himself, as the reason why these officers (and of course Dr Blakeley as their boss), refused to defend the democratically decided Council policy on harbour reclamation before the Unitary Plan commission. Has Dr Blakeley got a better way to explain this?
Why he tries to muddle this up with the statement by Port company lawyer Mai Chen in 2013, who claimed at the time the policy was ‘illegal’, is hard to fathom. Unless to further muddy the waters, to distract attention from the very serious matter of Council officers keeping the existence of vital information from the councillors, namely the existence of legal advice that conflicted with their own legalistic arguments.
The legal advice by the RMA coastal specialists Cowper Campbell sought by a former council General Counsel in response to Ms Chen’s claims, stated inter alia that ‘there is no basis for the claims that Resolution 6 is illegal in that it breaches s 32 or breaches the Coastal Policy statement,’ as Ms Chen argued then and as Dr Blakeley and his officers argue now. The legal advice went on to say ‘Rather I prefer the option that all reclamation is a non-complying activity.’
This legal advice was only given to councillors after someone in the know tipped off the NZ Herald and its existence was revealed the day after the 12 February meeting.
We have a problem when vital information is withheld from councillors and the public on a matter of serious environmental concern to thousands of Aucklanders, and when legalistic arguments are raised by council officers which conflict with the legal advice they do have.
Perhaps Dr Blakeley, rather than trying to take on an elected representative in the Daily Blog should explain what looks like an abuse of process within his department, on his watch. While he is at, he could also explain why the two wharf extensions, the precursors of a major reclamation were consented without public notification and without notice to the councillors.
I will concede I did make an error in the article and that is that Ports of Auckland did not announce the planned wharf extensions as I assumed, rather we only learned about them via a tip-off to the Herald apparently from a whistle-blower within the waterfront industry. Conceivably work could have started on the first stage of this major reclamation in a couple of weeks-time without anyone knowing about it – apart from the Ports of Auckland, Dr Blakeley and his staff.