Audit NZ confirms it will review 'unusual' process taken by Hamilton City Council over new urban park

Audit NZ will review the process Hamilton City Council took around approaching two property owners about buying properties to expand inner city park Victoria on the River without a formal plan in place.

Hamilton City Council chief executive Richard Briggs asked the auditors to investigate the processes taken around Victoria on the River on Monday, while hours earlier still defending his actions to the Herald.

Briggs and Audit NZ audit director Leon Pieterse met this morning and spoke to audit and risk committee chair Paul Connell about finalising the scope of the review.

Briggs said he was still waiting on Audit NZ to finalise its response before updating elected members and the media.

Audit New Zealand local government group sector manager Kristin Aitken confirmed they received the request from the chief executive yesterday, but it was too early to say what exactly would be covered in the review or how long it would take.

The investigation comes after the Herald revealed last week Briggs only approached two property developers about the council's plans to buy and bowl buildings to extend the river side park. He was following a mandate from elected members to approach the owners between Victoria on the River and Embassy Park about their willingness to sell to council.

Briggs has acknowledged the "unusual" process taken by council in approaching property owners for a "fact-finding mission" before having a plan in place, but had reassured councillors telling them Audit NZ was "satisfied with the steps he had taken". He has also promised to have a more formal process in place should anything similar arise in the future.

"I hadn't brought council any expenditures and as long as I was not committing council and I was not having a conversation with someone about buying property outside my delegated authority that he [auditor] was comfortable."

Aitken said the auditor made it very clear during his November conversations with Briggs that it could not give advice on the project, but was "satisfied with the proposed general approach he planned to take".

The auditor only gave "general pointers" to the CEO about the processes that council needed to follow when they discussed the Victoria on the River project, Aitken said.

"In a response to a request from the chief executive, we gave some advice considering options in the lead up to the long term plan process, and on the LTP process itself... We did not give any specific views on the proposed Victoria on the River project itself."

Audit NZ also gave information about council staff compiling information about possible spending on projects covered in the plan regardless of whether final decisions had been made on those projects and reminded the council to consider its significance and engagement policy.

Councillor Rob Pascoe last week questioned whether Audit NZ be called in to investigate especially given some of the meetings had happened in confidential meetings. He also raised concerns about processes surrounding other projects including the $3.95 million Garden Place revamp proposed by property owners Matt Stark, Steve McLennan and architect Brian White who have committed a private contribution of about $800,000.


From the NZ Herald