Part 2: Recent events on the bridge project

Ashburton District Council: Allegations of conflicts of interest affecting decisions on a second bridge.

The Project has a long history dating back to 2005. We summarise recent events in this Part. More background and the relevant documents are available on the Council’s website.

Figure 2
Summary of recent events on the second urban bridge project

4 July 2013 Council decision
The Council approved “Option A” as the selected route for the second bridge, which was to proceed to the land designation process under the RMA. The land designation process involves:
  • publishing a notice of requirement for land designation;
  • public submissions;
  • hearings by independent commissioners (because the Council was the applicant);
  • recommendations from the commissioners to the Council; and
  • a final decision by the Council on whether to designate the land.
17 September 2013 A draft notice of requirement was circulated to councillors.
19 September 2013 A Council workshop discussed the draft notice of requirement. Staff addressed two follow-up queries in a later report to councillors.
3 October 2013 Council decision
A report from Council staff notes that the designation for the works was being sought to secure the required land before any future development, so that the project could proceed when required.

The Council voted to “… proceed to lodge a notice of requirement for land designation associated with the second urban bridge across the Ashburton River, including road infrastructure and associated works as shown in the Option A plan dated 4 March 2013”.
12 October 2013 Local authority elections.
30 October 2013 Inaugural meeting of the newly elected councillors.

Ashburton District Council has 12 councillors and a mayor. As a result of the election, eight councillors were returned to office and four new ones, including Councillor Urquhart, were elected.
7 November 2013 The notice of requirement was publicly notified under the Resource Management Act 1991.
14 November 2013 Five councillors, including Councillor Urquhart, provided the Chief Executive with a notice of motion proposing: “That the designation process for the Ashburton second urban bridge be put on hold until such time as the newly elected Council reconsiders the matter; and that this matter be considered at an extraordinary Council meeting”.
27 November 2013 Councillor McLeod emailed the Chief Executive and Mayor to say that three people had raised concerns with him about possible conflicts of interest. The email said:

“Hi Andrew and Angus,

Three people have raised the issue that there may be a conflict tomorrow – some Councillors may still be members of the Bridge Action Group, and/or may own land adjoining the proposed route, which could mean a pecuniary interest if their land value is affected.

I request that you seek clarification of these matters before we have the meeting, so we are all in clear territory when the discussion takes place.



The Chief Executive reminded councillors that afternoon, by email, of their obligation to declare any financial or non-financial conflicts of interest.
28 November 2013 Before the Council meeting
Councillor Urquhart emailed the Chief Executive and told him that he had been involved with the Bridge Action Group but had stood down. He asked to meet with the Chief Executive that morning. The email did not mention that Councillor Urquhart owned land adjacent to the land to be designated.

The Chief Executive sought legal advice by telephone about Councillor Urquhart’s situation. The advice was that:

  • there was a strong risk of apparent bias if Councillor Urquhart were to take part in the decision that afternoon; and
  • the risk of apparent bias arose from his strongly held views combined with active participation in the Bridge Action Group.
The Chief Executive told Councillor Urquhart about the legal advice.

The Chief Executive told us that he did not ask for advice about whether Councillor Urquhart had a financial conflict of interest at that point, because he did not know that Councillor Urquhart owned a property adjacent to the designated area.

At the Council meeting
The purpose of the 28 November meeting was to consider the notice of motion provided to the Chief Executive on 14 November.

In a report from the Chief Executive to the councillors, it was noted that it was “understood that the Councillors are seeking to revoke Council’s decision of 3 October 2013”.The report explained that, to give effect to the proposed motion to put the decision on hold, the decision of 3 October would need to be revoked. This was because the notice of requirement had already been publicly notified. This had triggered a formal statutory process of public submissions and hearings. The Council had no power to pause that statutory process when it was under way. Instead, it would have to revoke the notice of requirement.

The meeting discussed and voted on a motion to revoke the Council’s decision on 3 October 2013. The motion was lost. The Mayor used his casting vote in this decision.

Councillor Urquhart declared a conflict of interest and did not participate in the discussion or vote. He later told us that he did not believe he had a conflict and felt like he was letting down the people who had voted for him by not participating. However, he did not have time to follow up on the legal advice received by the Chief Executive.
19 December 2013 The chief executive received formal written legal advice on Councillor Urquhart’s position which he passed on to Councillor Urquhart. The legal advice confirmed that there would have been a risk of apparent bias if Councillor Urquhart had participated in the decision on 28 November.

Since giving the initial verbal advice, the Council’s legal advisors had learned that Councillor Urquhart owned a property adjacent to the land proposed to be designated. They said that this meant he had a pecuniary interest because the value of his land could be affected and, if he had taken part in the meeting on 28 November 2013, he would have been at risk of prosecution under the Local Authorities (Members’ Interests) Act 1968.
February 2014 Councillor Urquhart wrote to our Office. He told us that:
  • Before he was elected, he had been an active member of the Bridge Action Group, which opposed the Project, and he had campaigned to join the Council on a platform that included that opposition.
  • He opposed the Project not because his land was adjacent to the proposed access route, but because he believed that the Project would do little to address the district’s traffic problems, there were better options, and the New Zealand Transport Agency should be funding these better options.
  • He had not disclosed his land interests to the Chief Executive because other councillors had relatives with land that the notice of requirement would affect. He said that, if they were allowed to participate, he felt he should be able to as well, especially because his land was not directly affected. He said he felt he had been unfairly singled out.
  • He understood that the appearance of impartiality is important if the Council acts in a quasi-judicial role. He was prepared to consider any information in an unbiased manner, whether it affected him or not, if the information and evidence stacked up.
  • Since the decision, his son had bought land nearby but was not affected by the notice of requirement.
Our response to Councillor Urquhart said that:
  • The Council’s legal opinion had identified apparent bias and predetermination as the main concern affecting his involvement in this decision-making process. His potential pecuniary interest was correctly treated as a secondary matter.
  • If we were to consider an exemption from the prohibition on participation because of his pecuniary interests, this would not resolve the apparent bias and predetermination issues.
  • The Council had done the right thing by obtaining specific legal advice.
  • He should work with the Council and take account of that advice.
10–13 March 2014 Two independent commissioners heard public submissions on the notice of requirement.
8 May 2014 The commissioners formally recommended to the Council that it proceed with the notice of requirement to designate the land.
22 May 2014 Council decision
At this meeting, the Council had to consider the recommendation of the commissioners. One of the commissioners was present to answer questions from councillors.

Council officers recommended that the Council adopt the commissioners’ recommendation and confirm the notice of requirement for the designation of land.

The Chief Executive also gave councillors a summary of legal advice he had received on the options open to the Council at this stage of the process.

At the meeting:
  • Councillor Nelson declared a non-pecuniary conflict of interest and gave notice that he would not take part in the discussion or decision-making.
  • Councillor Totty then sought clarification on the conflict of interest process, noting that other councillors might also have conflicts of interest.
  • Councillors were reminded of the need to declare any conflict of interest.
  • The Chief Executive reminded Councillor Urquhart that legal advice had noted that the prudent course of action would be for him to withdraw from debate and decision.
  • Councillor Urquhart reported that he had sought his own legal advice and he believed he was unfairly discriminated against in the 28 November meeting. He referred the Council to the email of 27 November, and he asked for that to be disclosed. The Mayor read the email.
The recommendation “that Council adopts the Commissioners’ recommendation attached to the report and confirms the notice of requirement for the designation of land for a second urban bridge over the Ashburton River and associated road purposes” was passed, with the Mayor using his casting vote. The votes were:
  • For: Councillors McLeod, Totty, Nordqvist, Beavan, Brown, and McKay.
  • Against: Councillors Favel, Wilson, Reveley, Cutforth, Ellis, and Urquhart.

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