Whangārei District Council CEO Rob Forlong did not undertake a sufficient investigation of a ratepayer's complaint into a councillor's actions, but he was not blameworthy, a secret report has revealed.
However, Forlong disputes the findings of lawyer Steph Dyhrberg, in her report into the council's handling of a well-publicised complaint.
Almost two years after requesting it, and a long process through the Office of the Ombudsman, the Northern Advocate has finally had some details of the Dyhrberg report released - a two-page summary of the report.
The report, and an earlier draft report, are understood to have cost the council around $50,000. However, the council confirmed that the total figure to date (last invoice received August 31, 2020) - including costs keeping it secret - is $108,990.25.
The newspaper first requested a copy of the Dyhrberg report from the council in November 2018, but was refused. The Advocate then complained to the Ombudsman's office, and after a lengthy process the summary has been released.
The Northern Advocate requested under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act copies of the draft and final reports that delved into the council's management of Wayne Deeming's complaint regarding then Councillor Shelley Deeming.
The council refused the request, citing the privacy of natural persons, the maintaining of legal privilege and protection of information where making it available would be likely to unreasonably prejudice the commercial position of the person who was the subject of the information.
The two-page report summary - released through lawyers Thomson Wilson Law - said on February 27, 2016 a ratepayer (Wayne Deeming) lodged a complaint with the council in relation to actions of a councillor (Shelley Deeming) following an incident in 2009.
Forlong investigated the complaint and having considered the complaint declined to re-open the matter, he determining that it had been raised and dealt with some six years previously.
The ratepayer then lodged a complaint with the council that Forlong had breached the WDC's Elected Members Code of Conduct and had committed serious misconduct.
Council engaged Dyhrberg Drayton Employment Law to undertake an independent review of this complaint. Dyhrberg found that there was no evidence to suggest the chief executive had acted in bad faith but that he had failed to properly consider the complaint afresh.
Forlong rejected those findings, saying his position was that the matter had been dealt with at the time of the original complaint and that further complaints by the ratepayer to both the Ombudsman and the Privacy Commissioner had considered his complaints and their determinations were conclusive such that the council did not have to take further action.
However, Dyhrberg did not accept that position.
While Dyhrberg concluded the decision-making was not robust and objective she found that there was no evidence of actual bias, no breach of the Bill of Rights Act and no evidence to suggest Forlong acted in bad faith.
''While the chief executive strongly disagrees with Ms Dyhrberg she concluded he had not conducted a proper investigation process in that he had relied on an entrenched but wrong position that a proper process had been undertaken when the initial complaint was considered. While the process he undertook was in good faith and based on legal advice, it was not considered adequate,'' the report said.
While also finding Forlong did not undertake a sufficient investigation of the complaint Dyhrberg considered he was not however blameworthy, was not in breach of council's employee code of conduct and was not disrespectful of the ratepayer.
For there to be a breach of council's employee code of conduct he would have had to display a lack of good faith, serious negligence or some ulterior motive and Dyhrberg saw no evidence to support any such finding.
Wayne Deeming questioned the report summary that was released, saying the best person to produce a summary would have to be the independent person who produced the report in the first place, rather than the council's lawyer.
''So why was Ms Dyhrberg not invited to do so? Just a guess but, perhaps she would, heaven forbid, provide an accurate summary which is the last thing WDC wants,'' he said.
Wayne Deeming said the spending of an "outrageous sum of money" on a simple complaint was entirely council's decision.
''It appears that WDC can spend upwards of $100,000 of ratepayers' money without
any accountability whatsoever,'' he said.
The issue between Wayne Deeming and Councillor Deeming dates back a decade, when a complaint made by Wayne Deeming to then mayor Stan Semenoff about an incident at the Mid-Western Rugby and Squash Club that he felt may have breached the Sale of Liquor Act was made public.
This case has already seen the council ordered to pay Wayne Deeming $2000 plus expenses in 2015 for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.
In 2018, one of three code of conduct complaints levelled at Councillor Deeming relating to this matter was upheld by fellow councillors. In a split vote, councillors opted not to impose any penalty for the breach.