Two of the four mayoral candidates and a candidate in Pirongia have told The News that may have muddied the local body elections for them with one saying it was “serious” if there were any efforts to skew residents’ access to information.
Councillors saw a draft of the report at a public-excluded workshop on August 9, just over a month before voting in the elections started.
The first anyone else knew came in a press release last Wednesday – sent out 90 minutes after this paper went to press.
That timing ensured any analysis and candidate comment produced in print by The News would not be seen by readers until today. That is significant because voting for the election, which opened on September 16, closes on Saturday.
Bernard Westerbaan and Chris Woodhams – standing for mayor against incumbents councillor Susan O’Regan and mayor Jim Mylchreest – say withholding the annual Residents’ Perception Survey until last week has potentially marred the election process.
Staff say they held the report back because they wanted to benchmark Waipā’s performance against other councils. They include neighbours Waikato and South Waikato district councils.
Waikato has yet to release its results while South Waikato is reviewing its ongoing involvement in the survey.
Waipā ended up mid-table in a group comprising three city councils, including commissioner-run Tauranga, and 13 district councils.
Westerbaan complained to chief electoral officer Warwick Lampp saying the results should have been attached to chief executive Garry Dyet’s pre-election report.
“If the information was well known beforehand and released late on purpose I would consider this to be illegal and the election process has been influenced,” he said.
Westerbaan said he had been told to take it up with Dyet.
Woodhams said the timing of the release was “strange.”
“Clearly the people of the Waipa district are not very satisfied with the direction, engagement or leadership of the councillors and, as someone who has campaigned on these issues, the validation may have proved useful.”
Mylchreest said councillors only received the information last week – referring to the final report – and there was “no withholding” of the information.
“If council wished to, it could legitimately (have) held up the release until after the elections.”
O’Regan said she had no oversight or control of the report’s timing.
“I have always been clear since announcing my mayoral bid that although we have a great district, council needs to change.
“We need to make it easier to deal with us – we need to be more of an enabling council and less of a roadblock. Our processes should be more transparent,” she said.
The survey showed Pirongia residents were the least satisfied with council’s performance. Pirongia-Kakepuku ward candidate Corilin Steel, who is challenging incumbents Clare St Pierre and Bruce Thomas, said she agreed with the survey which said the township had been ignored by council.
St Pierre and Thomas had access to the data which was “just the way of local government.”
Her campaign was made “slightly” more difficult by not knowing the survey results, she said.
Staff received the first draft of the report in late June which it shared with councillors in August.
The benchmarking report arrived at council on September 13 and councillors saw it the next day. It went into the agenda for the Audit and Risk committee held on September 30 and councillors saw it at their last meeting on September 27, but not as part of the meeting agenda.
The news release which council maintains it “proactively released” was sent on Wednesday September 28 at 1.49pm.
No other media seem to have noticed the release.
Woodhams said the survey results came as no surprise to him as through his campaign residents told him they were unhappy “feel they haven’t been listened to, this council is slow and simply want the basics done now.”
“I take any efforts to skew residents’ access to information, or their understanding of said information, seriously.
“I hope that no councillor has seen these statistics prior to the draft and formal releases. This would create an issue and the outside perception may well become a serious concern.”
Westerbaan said the council was not listening to residents and ratepayers’ concerns and there was a lack of transparency.
O’Regan said there was “some” good news in the survey results.
Waipa still scored highly in terms of ‘quality of life,’ she said.
Mylchreest said the results needed to be interpreted to see whether there were any external factors, such as poor performance by other agencies or a “general malaise” in the community post Covid.