Accusations of cop-outs are flying after the council put the future ownership of 11 Mission St in the hands of the Elms Foundation.

Tauranga City Council proposed to gift the 1400sq m piece of land - which is valued at $1 million and adjoins The Elms - to the Ōtamataha Trust, which represents hapu Ngāti Tapu and Ngāi Tamarawaho.

But in a rollercoaster of decisions this afternoon, the council voted not to give the land to the trust, then voted not to give it to the Elms Foundation - which some believed was promised the land - either.

Councillor Rick Curach voted no to both, then proposed the council give the land to the trust with a new condition: An endorsement from the Elms Foundation.

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The council voted six to five in support.

Councillor Rick Curach said it was a
Councillor Rick Curach said it was a "cop-out" for the Elms foundation to have taken a neutral position. Photo / File

Prior to the votes, council city development team leader Danna Leslie told the meeting the foundation had taken a neutral position on the decision.

Curach said the neutral position was a "cop-out".

"I want to be fully satisfied that we have buy-in from the Elms Foundation."

But former Tauranga mayor Stuart Crosby, who sits on The Elms' board, told the Bay of Plenty Times The Elms made its position clear to Tauranga City Council staff, who failed to "properly notify" elected members.

The foundation did not make a formal submission on the council's proposal because, as a potential beneficiary, it was not its place to try and influence the decision, Crosby said.

But on May 20 the foundation sent the council a letter informing it of an internal decision.

"The foundation's position was that our first preference was to have 11 Mission St transferred to The Elms. Our second preference was that it should go to the Ōtamataha Trust."

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Former Tauranga mayor Stuart Crosby is now an Elms Foundation trustee. Photo / File
Former Tauranga mayor Stuart Crosby is now an Elms Foundation trustee. Photo / File

Crosby said he felt sorry for Curach and the elected members because they did not have that information, but in his view, today's decision was a "cop-out".

In the meeting, other councillors slated the decision to put the burden of a controversial issue on the foundation.

John Robson said it was an "abdication of [the council's] responsibility" and Bill Grainger said the council was "passing the buck".

Larry Baldock, who supported giving the land to the trust, said the foundation's neutral position indicated it was comfortable with whatever the council decided.

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After the meeting, Ōtamataha Trust chairman Puhirake Ihaka said the ownership issue remained "unfinished".

He was "disappointed and frustrated" the council had not agreed to gift the land to the trust, but he did not know what would come from the decision being pushed to the foundation.

All the trust could do was "wait and see", he said.

The transfer was also conditional on the trust and foundation agreeing to a long-term peppercorn lease of the land to the foundation. The two parties have already signed a "heads of agreement" with the terms of that lease.

The council discussed that if The Elms did not give its endorsement, the decision would come back to the next elected council.

A crowd of an estimated 100 people filled the council chambers to hear the decision.

The council bought the land in 2006 to secure land for the expansion of The Elms.

There has been debate as to whether that purchase was made with a promise to eventually give the land to the foundation, which intends to build on it.

Crosby, who was mayor at the time, has said that was the clear intent of the purchase, but the council has found no record of a formal promise.

A storm of controversy followed Tauranga City Council's proposal in December to gift the section to the trust.

There has been fervent support both for and against the idea, with formal submissions split 58 per cent against, 39 per cent in support.


How they voted
Tauranga City Council gifts the land at 11 Mission St to the Ōtamataha Trust, subject to the endorsement of the Elms Foundation and, if endorsed, a lease in favour of the Elms Foundation.

For: Rick Curach, Terry Molloy, Max Mason, Larry Baldock, Steve Morris, Kelvin Clout.

Against: Mayor Greg Brownless, John Robson, Bill Grainger, Catherine Stewart, Leanne Brown.

The Elms, Mission House. Photo / Joel Ford
The Elms, Mission House. Photo / Joel Ford

Disputed historical claims assessed

The 11 Mission St debate has been littered with disputed historical claims about the land.

On the request of Tauranga City Council's chief executive Marty Grenfell, the council asked historian Dr Vincent O'Malley to review the claims for accuracy, relevance and appropriateness.

Grenfell said he made the request after speaking to staff who had "harrowing" experiences during the consultation process.

Tauranga City Council chief executive Marty Grenfell. Photo / File
Tauranga City Council chief executive Marty Grenfell. Photo / File

O'Malley, in a report presented to the council today, found the claim that the land at 11 Mission St was fairly and squarely purchased from Māori by the Church Missionary Society "does not withstand serious scrutiny".

"It is based on a monocultural and ahistorical outlook that fails to consider the cultural and historical context in which the transactions took place."

It was a "conditional transaction" rather than an outright sale, he said.

O'Malley also found the land was not "confiscated" from Māori, but there was a "strong coercive context" to how the Crown gained the title, and its loss was a "significant blow for local hapū".

In today's meeting, deputy mayor Kelvin Clout said elected members received emails questioning O'Malley's neutrality and accusing him of having a "bias against the colonial Government of New Zealand".

O'Malley said he took the same unbiased approach to the report as he took when giving evidence to the Waitangi Tribunal as an expert witness.

"An expert witness does not take sides, they merely pursue the research... My review takes no view on the merits or otherwise of the proposition the council considered."

O'Malley's other findings included:

- Te Papa peninsula was extensively occupied and cultivated by Māori prior to 1828.
- Evidence the land was made available to the Church Missionary Society on a more conditional basis.
- Clear evidence the land was held by the Church Missionary Society in an implied trust for the benefit of Māori.
- No evidence the Church Missionary Society educated Māori for free while charging Pākehā.
- Evidence suggesting 11 Mission St was outside the fortified area of the Otamataha pā but within the wider unfortified area that was occupied and cultivated.
- Māori did not forfeit their rights to Otamataha by choosing not to permanently occupy the site after 1828. They made that move not because the site became unimportant to them but because it became sacred land. How they used the land was not material to assessing ownership rights.