People power in action

Yay for people power and the pressure of upcoming elections!  Kind of …

After an overflowing QLDC council chamber heard some 18 Queenstown and Wanaka locals speak of their concerns about expansion of both airports during yesterday’s public forum, Councillors voted down Queenstown Airport Corporation’s growth-driven statement of intent.

But there is still no clarity about what their strategic objectives for QAC are.  More on that later.

The only councillors to vote to agree to the SOI were Mayor Jim Boult, who moved the resolution to do so, and the three councillors not standing for re-election; Tony Hill, Ross McRobie and Scott Stevens. 

Many of those speaking in public forum had responded to a call from We Love Wakatipu, an almost incorporated society that went live on the web and Facebook Friday night and had more than 200 members by the end of the weekend.

Its purpose is to ensure council hears – and acts on – the community’s strong demand for not expanding Queenstown Airport’s air noise boundary.

Launching its Protect Queenstown campaign during public forum, spokesperson Cath Gilmour said the community wants a communications reset.  Specifically – timely and responsive consultation, open sharing of information and courtesy.

Acknowledging the group’s strategic alliance with Wanaka Stakeholders Group’s Protect Wanaka campaign, she said that in what is believed to be an historic first, Queenstown and Wanaka locals are united and acting together.

“We want our elected representatives to act on our shared concerns on proposed airport growth.”

Councillors voted unanimously to not allow QAC to go ahead with expansion at either airport until results of their proposed social and economic impact assessments are in.

But this is just a delaying tactic, not a definitive no.

Critical to these assessments are the terms of reference and their independence. 

Unless these terms of reference are robust, wide-ranging, transparent and reflect community concerns, the low level of trust exhibited for both QAC and QLDC at yesterday’s meeting will not be overcome.  

The results will be looked at sceptically unless our community can trust from the start that these assessments look at all strategic options available – not just QAC’s dual airport growth strategy – through the lens of community interest and aspirations rather than airline and QAC driven demand.

Currently, word from Mayor Boult is that the terms of reference will have no public input and the assessments will be based only on QAC’s preferred dual airport management strategy.

This would be a mistake.

Yesterday, councillors seemed to get the message that growth – or more specifically, council’s lack of strategic management of growth through the airport’s expansion plans – was a problem.

But a motion by Cr Penny Clark to table the statement of intent pending further discussion to get rid of the offending narrative on growth failed.

CEO Mike Theelen said the SOI is QAC’s document “and it’s been wordsmithed to a point of incoherence already, people are saying.”  Some councillors had said they found the SOI confusing and difficult to understand.

When asked directly during a break in the meeting whether council was now going to take control and direct required changes to the SOI, as it must do under the Local Government Act, he denied this was the case.

This despite council’s legal counsel not being able to refute evidence to the contrary provided to councillors in early July by a senior QC with decades of experience in local government legislation.

Wanaka Stakeholders Group has already warned council it is considering a judicial review of its statement of intent process to date. They say this latest outcome “is merely a delay,” and they still seek the information and documentation they have formally asked for many times, including yesterday.

So, the way forward?

In light of Mr Theelen’s comment, it is hard to know.

Under section 65.2 of the Local Government Act, as they have not agreed to the SOI, QLDC is meant to direct the Airport Corporation how it must be modified.  They are meant to have done this “as soon as practicable” after QAC delivered it. 

Councillors first didn’t agree to the statement of intent back on June 27.  Nor at their August 8 meeting. And now, not on August 26.

Currently, they are shooting for their October 10 meeting – the last of this triennium – but they haven’t yet given QAC clear instructions of what changes they want. 

As QAC CEO Colin Keel said in response to a question from Mr Theelen about whether he could get the board to draft the changes in time, “I don’t know what these changes are”.

That’s not surprising. As Cr Forbes made clear during the meeting, councillors have not yet had a focused discussion on their strategic objectives, outside of a couple of workshops – managed by QAC’s executive team. 

Nor have they produced a document stating what they are. Certainly, yesterday’s meeting didn’t help clarify them, beyond a general “pull back on the growth” message. 

Which makes QAC’s job – to achieve QLDC’s strategic objectives – rather difficult.

Under the Local Government Act, these objectives can be both commercial and non-commercial. They can relate, among other things, to the objectives, nature and scope of QAC’s activities and how these should be measured and judged.

It is concerning that neither the executive team nor councillors – apart from Alexa Forbes and Quentin Smith – seem to have yet understood this.

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