COMMENT:

Wellington's Deputy Mayor said in April she was taking a 10 per cent pay reduction in solidarity with constituents doing it tough in Covid-19, but did she follow through?

It turns out Sarah Free thought she could count money she was already giving to charity as part of her pay cut donation to local community groups.

She didn't just think it, that's what she actually did right up until the Remuneration Authority more recently told her any donations made before March 25 weren't valid towards the official temporary pay reduction it was setting for elected members.

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Free pointed out to the Herald she already gave a substantial amount to charity and ended up giving more than ten per cent of her salary to various groups.

No one is disputing that, but the fact money was going to charity wasn't the main point of this exercise.

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The point was that councillors would be living their lives on ten per cent less money than they usually would, just like other Wellingtonians on varying pay cuts.

Elected members at the city council got kudos for coming out early with the announcement they would be reducing their pay in solidarity with those in the community "feeling a lot of pain".

The move could be seen as tokenism, but there is merit in the idea that everyone is in something together.

The fact Free was counting pre-existing donations towards her ten per cent cut does not live up to the expectations of Wellingtonians.

Free told the Herald it was unclear to her the 10 per cent Covid-19 donation had to be "over and above" what elected members already gave to charity.

It's probably a point Wellington City Council never thought it had to clarify.

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Deputy Mayor Sarah Free thought she could count money she was already giving to charity as part of her pay cut donation to local community groups. Photo / Mark Mitchell.
Deputy Mayor Sarah Free thought she could count money she was already giving to charity as part of her pay cut donation to local community groups. Photo / Mark Mitchell.

Local Government elected members can't technically reduce their pay, which is determined by the independent Remuneration Authority and set in legislation.

Instead, many pledged to donate to charity like those at Wellington City Council.

The situation the Deputy Mayor has landed herself in isn't the first time there's been an issue of transparency over these Covid-19 pay cut donations.

In May, Mayor Andy Foster refused to disclose to the Herald which community groups his pay cut was going to, describing the request for that information as "too intrusive".

Foster, Free and their councillor colleagues were all asked when they made their first payment and who it went to.

Most councillors were able to readily provide this information with Sean Rush going as far as providing a copy of the official tax receipt of his first donation to Women's Refuge.

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At the time all Free said was: "I am supporting four Wellington-based charities with my 10 per cent donation but I have chosen the option of making the donations privately".

Sometimes people can be sensitive about charity donations, but these are elected officials donating money that would otherwise be going back into council coffers had the legislation existed at the time for that to happen.

All of this could have been avoided if elected members took a leaf out of Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel's book, or the Prime Minister's for that matter.

Dalziel held out for legislation to be changed so the Remuneration Authority could temporarily reduce local government elected members pay.

"The point that I have made to my colleagues is that giving more to the charities we already support gives nothing back to the ratepayers", she said at the time.

Jacinda Ardern has also waited for the legislation to be amended and will take a six month pay cut of 20 per cent starting from July 9.

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She said last week they'd canvassed all the options, including giving part of their salaries to charity, but that opened up "wider issues" around who MPs chose to support.

"Frustratingly, the simplest option was to change the law but unfortunately that's what is taking the longest."

Wellington City Council tried to cut through the bureaucratic red tape by donating the equivalent of a pay cut to charity, and that's an admirable sentiment.

But it resulted in some awkward questions, some creative accounting, and thousands of dollars going out the door when it could have been kept in the council's accounts.