ORC cancels ratepayer-funded dinner after councillor pushback

by Kim Bowden - Jun 20, 2024

A Dunstan Ward councillor says he was "utterly appalled" to receive an invitation to a ratepayer-funded dinner scheduled for after next week's council meeting, where a proposed rates rise of close to 19 percent is on the agenda.

It is the view of councillor Gary Kelliher that chair Gretchen Robertson failed to read the room with the planned event, which has since changed to be paid for by the councillors that choose to attend.

"It was good she pulled the pin, but the fact that it was thought acceptable from the start is what really irks me," Councillor Kelliher says.

The original invitation seen by Crux included cocktails and craft beer at the Steamer Basin Taproom at 5.30pm, followed by dinner at the Distinction Hotel at 7pm.

Councillor Robertson says feedback received after the invitation was sent out showed a preference by councillors to "self-fund" the evening and "that was taken up".

She says the intention was only ever for the meal portion to be paid for by the ratepayer, and drinks would not have been paid for.

Councillors travelling from outside of Dunedin to attend the council meeting already qualify to claim a meal allowance, and Councillor Roberston estimates the additional spend would have been approximately $40 each for the six 'home' councillors - so, $240.

It is her view this amount "is a small cost compared with the known benefits for positive productive workplace culture". 

Councillor Roberston says as they come from all over the region, councillors' time in Dunedin is put to good use and filled with meetings and workshops, with little chance for "a decent chat".

"There is seldomly time to come together with colleagues and discuss what is happening in their worlds. So actively finding ways to do this is important. Sharing food is such a common, universally normal way to connect with others."

She says while it is the job fo councillors to represent their own communities, they also take an oath to represent all of Otago.

"Connections are crucial if we are to do our best as a regional team."

Dunstan Ward councillor Alexa Forbes says she will be going out to dinner next week with fellow councillors and thinks social events like this are cost-effective team building exercises.

"Ratepayers get the best value from us when we can bring all views to the table and find a way forward on any given issue."

It is her view that polarisation is a threat to good political governance and social time together can combat this.

"As with any team, we need to build relationships and connections, that’s what sharing food is all about."

She says she also "fully" supports councillors having a social gathering to mark the completion of a "huge piece of work" - referencing the Long Term Plan.

"It’s very disappointing to me that some councillors have decided not to attend – this is a lost opportunity. 

"For most of us there’s no problem to self-fund, which is what will happen now that concern about ratepayer funding has been raised. 

"Concern being raised and a new plan being developed is part and parcel of collaborative behaviour."

Cromwell-based councillor Michael Laws says he will not be taking up the chair's dinner invitation. 

"I declined the moment the invite was sent out."

He says he agrees with Councillor Kelliher's view that the dinner as originally pitched was an inappropriate use of ratepayer funds "given the financial pain" the council is likely to have "inflicted on Otago ratepayers" in the proceeding council meeting. 

"It is an incident that typifies and amplifies the total disconnection of the Dunedin-based ORC from the residents and ratepayers of the Dunstan Ward.

"We get an extra councillor at next year’s election but too late to derail the dreadful cost-plus mentality that exists at ORC HQ."

Councillor Kelliher says, while he can "appreciate the intent" of the organisers, the aftermath of agreeing to a double-digit rates rise is not the time for councillors to propose "dinner out at a flash Dunedin restaurant" and "pat themselves on the back...on the ratepayers".

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