Mayors spending thousands of dollars on food, wine and flowers

Fancy room fresheners, an inspirational leadership book, cushions, council-branded chocolate bars, a wardrobe of wet-weather gear and a $119 bottle of red.

They are among the more unusual items the country’s mayors and chairs spent public money on.

The Herald asked the country’s 78 councils to provide the mayor or chairperson expenses for the first 12 months since they were elected in October 2019 under the Local Government Official Information Act.

Not all councils provided the information on time and some, including those in Auckland and Christchurch, did not interpret the request to include expenses made by the mayor’s office which falls under a separate budget.

And while the total expenditures are impossible to compare – some of the individual items that mayors deemed necessary are worth a mention.

There were the common petrol, phone charges, council conferences and associated accommodation, Koru Club fees and bereavement flowers included in the rafts of expenses incurred by many of the mayors.

But there were also a range of interesting gifts for residents, staff, elected members and overseas guests.

The New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union said whether ratepayers would be tolerant of mayors spending their money on gifts and items for their offices would depend on whether they believed they were getting value for money from the council and what rate increases they were proposing during a global pandemic.

Palmerston North Mayor Grant Smith’s expenses included $99 on Ashley & Co room fresheners for his and his deputy’s office, $600 on 24 bottles of wine for use in the council’s headquarters and chambers and $300 on ketes with paua and feathers and friendship badges for mayoral gifts.

His office purchased a signed Black Ferns’ jersey for $1000 for donation to another group or to be used to raise funds another way.

Smith also spent $1730 on catering for a Christmas party for elected members, the executive team and their partners held at his house.

He told the Herald some of the spending such as the room fresheners and flowers were carried out by his office and “just happen,” while the other items were general office expenses.

“If you can’t spend $90 a year on an air freshener – I suppose it’s a bit of an odd one – but I suppose it shows we are giving you every expense from the office.”

While some of the spending might have been unusual, he believed the overall amount was low compared to that of other mayors.

Napier Mayor Kirsten Wise spent $993 on a Christmas barbeque for councillors in 2019 and another $89 last August on groceries for them all.

Hastings Mayor Sandra Hazlehurst paid $1049 in 2019 for Christmas gift baskets with Telegraph Hill olive oil, manuka-smoked nuts and Cabernet drizzle for the 29 elected members, community board members and executive team.

The mayor also paid $636 on 80 council-branded chocolate bars to give as gifts for various functions.

Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher also used ratepayer money to spend $175 on Christmas gifts at The Warehouse for elected members.

Southland Mayor Gary Tong gave outgoing councillors a leaving gift of vouchers worth a total of $5214. They were given $100 for each year they served with the biggest voucher valued at $2100 for seven-term councillor Brian Dillon who missed out on a seat this term.

New Plymouth Mayor Neil Holdom spent $3693 on gifts such as flowers and Christmas cake to residents, as well as $2689 on beverages for mayoral-hosted events over the past year. The police also received a belated Christmas gift from him at the start of last year valued at $79.13.

Manawatu Mayor Helen Worboys spent $132 on a gift box including a hot water bottle; sleep, dream and hand cream; rose shampoo and dream cream; chocolates; and a cuddle bear and candle for a councillor who was in hospital.

She also paid $700 from the mayoral relief fund to transport the body of a man who died overseas from Wellington back to the district for a family funeral on the request of the Muslim community.

South Taranaki Mayor Phil Nixon was more original with his gifts, splashing out on two WOMAD tickets, two bottles of wine and scorched almonds, and a Frankie Stevens Christmas CD.

Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese spent $288 on four paua inlay kauri treasure boxes and four kauri collection dishes for her gift stock, while others gave out pens, lanyards and badges.

She also bought a $256 quill vase for a retiring port chairman which was jointly paid for by Tasman District Council.

Hawke’s Bay Regional Council chair Rex Graham spent $119 on just one bottle of Te Mata Estate Coleraine red wine as a thank you to businessman Brian Gaynor for free professional advice he gave them.

Long-standing Upper Hutt Mayor Wayne Guppy bought a book on inspirational leadership from Whitcoulls for $34.69. Hurunui Mayor Marie Black spent $473.22 on meals and supplies at Auckland’s Motorhome Show.

Western Bay of Plenty Mayor Garry Webber spent $256 on a dinner at the Clarence in Tauranga with representatives from the Department of Internal Affairs, and Bay of Plenty Regional Council chair Doug Leeder shouted him and the council’s own chief executive to a $218 meal at the Tauranga Club.

Changes to the mayoral regalia also came with a price tag with Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate spending $513 to alter hers, as well as $271 on a mayoral badge and a $52 on a purse for the mayoral chains to protect them while transporting them.

Matamata-Piako Mayor Ash Tanner also paid $55 to get his chains cleaned along with $600 on a new wet-weather wardrobe. It included $269.94 on a wet-weather jacket, $135 on wet-weather pants, safety gumboots, a sunhat, ear muffs, gloves and safety glasses.

Tanner said the gear was essential to his role as it meant he could go out with the various council teams, including those tasked with gardening and cleaning, to get a good understanding of what they did.

“I’m probably the only mayor who does it and is hands on.”

Some incoming mayors also felt the need to put their own touches on their offices.

Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine spent $1085.22 on new office furniture after moving into a previously disused office in the clock tower building in the centre of Westport. Four new casual chairs were also ordered at a cost of $1634.78 for then-Tauranga Mayor Tenby Powell’s office.

Southgate said two new office chairs in her office costing $1040 were part of the tools of the job. It was important she didn’t get a sore back.

Instead of buying a new couch, Porirua Mayor Anita Baker spent $621 on cushions and a throw to cover up damage.

Hosting overseas guests also came at a price for some councils with Nelson’s Reese spending $1733 on dinner for 21 people while jointly hosting a Danish delegation. She also gave them pottery bowls and plates worth $385.83.

Auckland Council did not interpret the request for expenses to include any from Mayor Phil Goff’s office.

New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union spokesman Louis Holbrooke said councils needed to be particularly careful about what they were spending money on, especially during a pandemic when ratepayers were making sacrifices in their own budgets.

“Certainly in the context of Covid-19 the expenses that those councils are levering on councils. If council is putting up your rates during a pandemic by 5 or 6 per cent you are going to be [annoyed] to find they have spent your money on branded chocolate bars or dinner for a Danish delegation.”

However Holbrooke said ratepayers who felt they were getting good value for their money might be more forgiving of their rates going on flowers or a vase for a bereaved or long-serving staff member.

However, he believed Christmas parties for councillors and presents should not be ratepayer-funded and “reeked of arrogance and vanity”.

In the private sector people had to dig into their own pockets to fund a $20 secret Santa gift so the public sector should be no different, he said.

“There is no reason for ratepayers to be funding Christmas presents. A once in 20-year bereavement might be a different story.”

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