QLDC silent on ratepayer money spent complaining about Crux

by Peter Newport - Apr 01, 2023


In July 2022 Crux received a letter from lawyers in Christchurch acting for the Queenstown Lakes District Council.

Alice Balme was QLDC's in house lawyer before she left to join Wynn Williams. She's pictured during QLDC's failed defence of legal action by Wānaka residents against QLDC's handling of airport expansion, with a judge labelling QLDC managers "evasive and misleading."

The letter said that the lawyers, Wynn Williams, were assembling a Media Council complaint in response to this editorial that accused QLDC CEO Mike Theelen of lying to Crux on multiple occasions about the council’s non-compliance with its own spending policy.

Mr Theelen’s frequent statements to Crux, over a period of months, stated that QLDC was complying with their procurement rules that control how tens of millions of dollars of ratepayer money is spent.

Subsequently, after further Crux coverage, Mr Theelen was forced to admit to then mayor Jim Boult that the council had not been following their own spending rules since they were introduced in 2016.

Further investigation by the council’s own managers then discovered that the spending rules contained a monumental error that resulted in QLDC being unable to operate on a day-to-day basis if the rules were followed. The rules then had to be changed at an urgent Extraordinary meeting of the full council.

The only logical conclusion is that QLDC, and Mr Theelen, either never read their own 2016 finance rules, or did read their own 2016 finance rules and then wilfully ignored them.

Media Council complaints are normally filed by the complainant and not by lawyers. It now appears that QLDC has been using ratepayer money to pay lawyers Wynn Williams for at least the last nine months but has so far failed to complete the steps required for the Media Council to consider the complaint against Crux.

A previous complaint by QLDC to the Media Council on the related issue of the non-compliant payment of millions of dollars to external consultants was thrown out by the Media Council, which ruled QLDC was obliged to answer difficult questions from journalists.

The NZ Media Council. "QLDC is obliged to answer difficult questions."

Crux asked QLDC a week ago, on March 24, what the status of the second Media Council complaint initiated by lawyers Wynn Williams was. This was the council’s reply.

“QLDC’s complaint is in the hands of the Media Council and remains pending. QLDC’s engagement of legal representation is confidential and legally privileged, and we will not be disclosing details to Crux.”

However when Crux checked with the Media Council two days ago, this was their reply.

“Further to your inquiry about second QLDC Media Council complaint. Mr Theelan has refused to provide a waiver. This complaint is no longer active and you are not expected to take any steps.”

One of the Media Council’s requirements for it to consider a complaint reads:

Who's in control? Our elected mayor (left) or Mr Theelen (right)

“Where the circumstances suggest that the complainant may have a legally actionable issue, the complainant will be required to provide a written undertaking not to take or continue proceedings against the publication or journalist concerned.”

On Friday (March 31st) QLDC ,when challenged by Crux, said that it “had not been informed directly” of the Media Council’s view of the complaint. The council’s comms and PR team added that if Crux wanted to discover the amount of ratepayer money spent so far on Wynn Williams we would have to file an official information request under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA).

Large law firms such as Wynn Williams often charge between $350 and $600 an hour for their services and Crux is aware of at least three members of the Wynn Williams legal team being involved in the Crux matter.

Crux has filed an official complaint with the Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier in regards to QLDC refusing to release details under LGOIMA that would reveal how the long term and untrue denial of public expenditure breaches was handled within the council and who was involved.

To even the amazement of Crux, QLDC announced in February this year, two years after the spending meltdown, that external consultants had just been hired to write a new procurement policy.

Mike Theelen - is $640,000 "chicken feed'?

Mr Theelen, who has presided over multiple controversial council projects such as Lakeview, written political speeches for former mayor Boult and delivered a recent rate rise of over 13%, referred yesterday in the Otago Daily Times to the $640,000 Auckland Council annual membership of Local Government NZ as “chicken feed” and therefore was not a worthwhile saving. Some sources say the membership fee was less than $640,000 – but the point is clear. Mr Theelen seems to have a different view of money than most of us.

He has a different view on how money is spent, how its declared and how it is controlled.

And, of course, it’s not his money.

No wonder 80% of ratepayers are dissatisfied with QLDC’s performance, and 81% of us are dissatisfied with our elected members. That’s according to QLDC’s own most recent survey, showing a decline in ratepayer satisfaction with the council performance over five consecutive years, all under the control of Mike Theelen.

Nobody appears to be in control here – apart from Mr Theelen.

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