Dam conflict denied

By Simon Hendery

14 comments
Councillor Tom Belford.
Councillor Tom Belford.

A dispute between Hawke's Bay regional councillors has intensified, with chairman Fenton Wilson questioning whether fellow councillor Tom Belford should vote on decisions related to the Ruataniwha Dam.

Mr Wilson repeatedly challenged Mr Belford this week to formally declare his interest in a lobby group that has opposed the Ruataniwha scheme.

Mr Belford is a founding member of advocacy group Transparent Hawke's Bay but has not declared his involvement in the group on a register of councillors' interests, arguing that other councillors have not registered their involvement in similar groups.

Transparent Hawke's Bay lodged a submission opposing the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme with the board of inquiry convened to assess resource consent issues related to the project and Mr Belford spoke to the group's submission in January during the board's hearing process.

This week, Mr Belford said while he was sceptical about the Ruataniwha project he maintained an open mind and made it clear to the board of inquiry his submission was made in a personal capacity, not as a councillor.

He was elected to the council between the time the written submission was lodged and the hearings began.

Mr Wilson said guidelines from the Office of the Auditor General were "pretty clear from what I've read" that councillors should not vote on issues they had made pubic submissions on.

In an email to Mr Belford yesterday, Mr Wilson said: "You made a conscious decision to represent Transparent Hawke's Bay at the board of inquiry while you were a councillor regardless of submitting before the election."

He said Mr Belford was "clearly conflicted" when it came to any council discussion regarding the Ruataniwha scheme, so "at the very least" he should register his interest in the organisation.

"You will also need to consider [your] future involvement with decisions around RWSS [the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme]."

Asked about yesterday's email from Mr Wilson, Mr Belford said he had "nothing to add".

Transparent Hawke's Bay co-founder and chair Pauline Elliott said Mr Belford had been operating at "arm's length" from the organisation since being elected to the council and did not have a conflict of interest. "Fenton Wilson's call is an unsavoury and unnecessary challenge to Councillor Belford's integrity," she said.

Councillors are scheduled to vote late next month on whether to invest up to $80 million of ratepayers' money into the Ruataniwha scheme, a $275 million project designed to provide irrigation across about 25,000ha of land in Central Hawke's Bay.

All nine councillors have indicated they need further information on the project before making up their minds on how they will vote.

This month the council is due to receive a peer review from consultants Deloitte on the business case for the project, put forward by its commercial arm, Hawke's Bay Regional Investment Company Ltd.

The council will also carry out public consultation on the proposal this month.

The removal of Mr Belford's vote could be significant in deciding the fate of the project if councillors are split on the issue next month.

If he does not vote, the scheme could be approved or scuttled by four councillors rather than a majority of five or more. In the event of a 4-4 tie, Mr Wilson has a casting vote as chairman.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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