Hamilton City Council's chief executive has admitted the process it took around its plans to extend Victoria on the River was "unusual" and will be improved, despite councillors saying he reassured them at the time it was not.
Councillors Paula Southgate, Angela O'Leary, Mark Bunting and Rob Pascoe said when the council resolution in September was made asking chief executive Richard Briggs to approach property owners, they expected him to contact more than two.
But councillors Dave Macpherson and Garry Mallett say they are comfortable with the process.
Southgate said it was her understanding at the September meeting that all property owners in the area would be approached and that elected members had even been reassured by staff at the time there was no risk to council.
Southgate did not support the plan because she felt "a little bit uncomfortable" about the process and concept especially when such rate increases were being proposed.
"I think what we are seeing here is a bit of a difference between doing good business dealings, what makes sense on a business level as a business person ... and good public sector governance. I would expect the public to have all disclosure and good transparent process if there were to be any property deals done in the city whatsoever, but we are not at that point yet in my view."
O'Leary said she had serious concerns at the start of the process which she raised with the chief executive and was assured by him that the process was not unusual and that Audit New Zealand had been briefed.
"While I didn't support the council resolution it did instruct the CEO to approach property owners, I am concerned that appears to not have happened.
"The difficulty I have at the moment is half the information remains public and half remains confidential."
Pascoe, who was away during some of the confidential discussions, said he felt it was not a good way for council to do business and was concerned a pattern might be occurring. He was considering whether Audit New Zealand needed to be called in to investigate.
"It just raises the fur on my back to see what is going on behind the scenes."
Bunting said there were a lot of "raised eyebrows" in the room when the mayor first raised the idea.
"I remember sending Richard off to investigate, but I'm pretty sure that was in general terms - I certainly wouldn't have sent him off to just approach two developers.
Councillor James Casson, who is overseas on holiday, commented on Facebook that he had felt blindsided and it appeared to be "very murky waters".
However Briggs said councillors should not be surprised by any of this information as they had been kept in the loop.
He said the process was unusual because council would not normally approach property owners to gauge the interest before developing a plan.
"Given I felt this was unusual, I spoke with our audit director and explained the work I had been requested to do to date, my reporting to the council and the potential processes going forward, should any decision on a property purchase be made."
Audit New Zealand were satisfied with the steps he took, but Briggs believed in future the council should have a clearly-documented process to stick to.
"If there was to be a future purchase relating to this area there would be a series of steps that must be taken, one of which would be specific approval by the council. This approval would require a full financial review of the subject property, sales history and independent valuation. It would likely also require a consultation process."
Briggs also denied any developers were given a 'heads-up' about a council proposal, saying it was only a "fact-finding mission" at that stage.
He reiterated that he approached property owners Matt Stark, who already owned property which was key to any extension of the current Victoria on the River site, and Leonard Gardner, because he had indicated a willingness to sell a property in the area to the council.
"After these initial discussions it was clear there was already a vision for the area by developers in the area. Given there was no council proposal at that stage, and that the new information I received should be reported back to the council I did not make further enquiries at that time."
Councillor Garry Mallett said the council had asked the chief executive to engage with the market and he was very comfortable with the process he had gone through.
"His jobs were to find out what were the obstacles, what was the likelihood we could buy it. I don't know he did anything wrong."
Mallett did not feel there was any risk to ratepayers as there were a number of checks and balances to be carried out including whether it would be in the final Long Term Plan.
However councillor Dave Macpherson said it was not unusual for people to approach mayors, chief executives or other senior property staff with deals.
Councillor Leo Tooman declined to comment. Councillors Siggi Henry, Geoff Taylor and Martin Gallagher did not respond to the Herald prior to deadline. Councillor Ryan Hamilton was not elected when the meetings were held last year.
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