9 of 11 councillors promised to vote against airport noise expansion – did they?

We Love Wakatipu Inc commentary on QLDC meeting, 30 June 2021, on Queenstown Airport Corporation’s statement of intent (SOI)

To provide some accountability for election hustings promises, WLW has gone back through the video of the council meeting that considered QAC’s Statement of Intent. In this post, we summarise councillors’ votes, comments and questions. We have also summarised public forum speakers. You can read WLW’s submission here

The quick answer is that yes, four did. Thank you, Councillors Quentin Smith, Niamh Shaw, Niki Gladding and Esther Whitehead.

All other councillors voted to agree to an SOI allowing QAC to continue planning expansion of Queenstown Airport’s air noise boundary – and to apply for consent any time after June 30, 2024.  All but Cllr Copland (who, as sole Arrowtown candidate, was not publicly asked this question during the campaign) and mayor Boult had said on election hustings they opposed expansion.

Three councillors said not one word except for “aye”– Val Miller, Heath Copland and Ferg Ferguson. Calum MacLeod and Penny Clark asked questions of QAC, but also made no comment beyond “aye” once discussion on the vote began.

Public forum

Gillian Macleod (WLW committee): urged councillors keep an open mind on the long-term future of ZQN. She suggested they aim for ‘tolerable tourism’ because ‘sustainable tourism’ was undefinable. Capping passenger numbers at Queenstown Airport would give certainty to both industry and community. As chair of council’s strategy committee in 2007, they pondered this same question and decided it was too hard and they couldn’t talk about it. “But when are we going to talk about it?”

Sally Stockdale (WLW vice-chair): the vast majority of councillors promised not to allow airport noise expansion, but everything seems predetermined. Perhaps because of the agenda – repeated errors could have affected the outcome of the vote, given a wrongful sense of urgency and limited options to choose from. What is the agenda behind the agenda? Options offered were not in the direction our community wants, or climate change demands.  It’s business as usual – but not the business we want.  You have been elected by the community to represent us and it is time to listen to us. Question your sources, especially those who have misguided you in the past.

John Hilhorst (FlightPlan 2050): ZQN offers the opportunity for creating an inspiring alpine campus – concentrating population, cutting urban sprawl and climate change gases, and offering the population density needed for a knowledge economy.  QAC could become council’s multi-million-dollar property development company when Christchurch International Airport limited builds a new international airport at Tarras. Please instruct QAC to investigate this option.

Kirsty Sharpe (WLW supporter) – air noise boundary expansion is still on the agenda, albeit beyond this SOI’s term. Surely you can see its days are numbered on this site? Now is the time to say no to expansion.

Councillors’ discussion

Mayor Boult – he’s aware there has been some discussion and perhaps change suggested, so it would be best to move the motion, and decide where to go from there.

Corporate services GM Meaghan Miller: jumped in to suggest an amendment finally accepting WLW’s complaint they were still using the 2019 “providing cost-effective infrastructure” purpose for council, rather than promoting the four wellbeings and enabling democracy, as has been their purpose since then. However, she then continued on to say that the same arguments stood despite that substantial change in purpose… (See further comment on this issue at the end of this commentary.)

WLW explainer: the mayor’s reference above was to an amendment proposed by Cllrs Shaw and Smith to insist that both the strategic and master plan require community consultation and council sign off.  It was stymied by QAC having followed instructions contained in council’s statement of expectation.  This had been written by council CEO Mike Theelen and there were complaints that it did not fully reflect councillor concerns and input. Councillors did not get to see the final draft of the SOE letter before it appeared in the agenda and had been sent to QAC.

Cllr Shaw: asked QAC director Simon Flood if the SOI’s inclusion of changing the Constitution was a request from Council? He did not directly answer this, but did say the QAC board would consult Council before asking for their sign off. She then asked how grumpy QAC board would be if council changed its mind on requiring consultation and sign off on both the strategic and master plan?

Mayor Boult: jumped in and said Mr Flood could not answer the board as he was only representing himself (despite the fact he was there representing the board, standing orders having been put aside specifically so he could do so.)

QAC director Flood: the SOI was the result of a “long programme of active consultation,” especially with the joint steering group. The board’s job was “independent governance of the CCTO and we would like to do the job we were appointed to do.” They would, in good faith, consult with all stakeholders, including shareholders.

Cllr Gladding: the SOI was reviewed every year, creating community angst each year over the question of stopping ANB expansion. The SOI contains objectives that are not prioritised, some compete with or contradict each other, and it’s left to QAC to balance them. The strategic plan’s 10-year horizon gave hope this could be resolved, but she could not understand how this would occur without consultation or any public scrutiny.  Is it feasible for the board to have an open strategic plan?  There’s a lot to resolve “and we can do it collaboratively, or we can do it by fencing ourselves off and hiding what we plan to do.” Where is this resistance to public consultation – from the board?

Mayor Boult: again jumped in to say the QAC director could not answer this question on behalf of the board.  And that there was no desire to keep it secret.

Mr Flood: We engage in good faith with everyone who has an opinion, though that may be through councillors as a conduit. “There are commercial sensitivities,” which need to be kept confidential, but this would be done on a good-faith basis. There was no intention of keeping it secret because “that is not how we operate”.

Cllr Clark: clarifies that the last time she had seen the SOI was before the Wanaka Airport lease was overturned (which happened April 20, more than two months prior). “I am interested in the nitty-gritty detail.” The airport is critical to this district’s survival. Concerned that figures in the graph on page 16 show passenger numbers dropping in 2023.

QAC CEO Colin Keel: clarifies that Cllr Clark is looking at the wrong graph and that numbers increase annually, as expected.

Cllr Clark: “Sorry, Mr Mayor, I think I have got myself a bit confused, but I am ready to move.”

WLW explainer: that is, Cllr Clark is prepared to move the motion to agree to the SOI, despite her confusion. In previous years, she has requested that the SOI be reduced to a 2-3 page summary, as there was too much detail and it was too long.

Cllr MacLeod: we need the dividend and despite 2023 passenger forecast been very similar to 2018 numbers, we’re not expecting the same level of dividend.  To Mr Keel; “Come on, boy, you can do better.”

Cllr Whitehead: looking with fresh eyes as a new councillor and former teacher, “I would give it an E grading, it lacks any robustness whatsoever”.  Its “really wishy-washy statements” don’t allow us to engage in any form of metrics. Asked for “a concerted effort” in the next SOI to allow measuring of objectives.

Meaghan Miller: if councillors agree, they can start talking about this during the informal process prior to and including formulation of the statement of expectations.

WLW commentary: in which councillors are meant to outline what they expect QAC to achieve through its SOI.  For the last several years, this has been written by CEO Mike Theelen, amid complaints from several councillors that their input was ignored or minimised.

Standing orders are reinstated and QAC representatives leave the table. Mayor Boult turns to Cllr Clark and straight to the point, asks if she is going to move the motion. Cllr Clark is “very happy” to do so and he then seconds it. Which allows discussion on the resolution to agree to the SOI to start…

Cllr Smith: the SOI has been “an ongoing piece of trouble,” going back and forward between QAC and council before agreeing to various iterations over the past three years. It has become easier to read and more concise and he is grateful for the work of the joint steering group, of which he is a member. The overturning of the Wanaka Airport lease has to a great extent resolved Upper Clutha’s problems with the SOI.  The one problem he has is strategic direction. The last couple of years, councillors have had to look at the SOI for QAC plans. The master plan remains the thing we need to look at to guide us where we are heading. Both the strategy plan and master plan need to be signed off by council, which is not agreed to in this SOI and therefore he cannot agree to it.

Cllr Gladding: her view the same as Cllr Smith’s. Councillors can’t do their job under The Local Government Act unless both master and strategic plans are consulted on with the public and ultimately signed off by councillors.

Cllr Glyn Lewers: also a member of the joint steering group, he spoke to the four areas of improvement required in the Office of the Auditor General’s report on QLDC governance of QAC. The “inadequate communication” has been improved. The lack of strategic alignment between QAC and QLDC is “a work in progress,” but the Spatial Plan “will certainly set the direction of where the airport will be able to move or not be able to move” over the next two years. QAC’s failure to appreciate the accountability et cetera of QLDC to its community was another “work in progress,” because council is in a different space than the board. On the issue of QLDC failing to respect confidentiality of information provided by QAC and allowing it to operate at arm’s-length, “I think we’ve got work to do on this. I’m happy to discuss the length of the arm, but some councillors seem to think there shouldn’t be an arm at all.”

Cllr Shaw: the amendment she and Cllr Smith had proposed related to council process, as shown to be lacking in the Judicial Review that found the Wanaka Airport lease to be illegal and based on inadequate consultation. So it’s reasonable to assume that council’s approach to consultation and document sign off may have changed since then. She would prefer not to invoke schedule 8, part one, clause 6 of the Local Government Act (through which they can compel QAC to include/exclude matters from the SOI) at this stage. It has been indicated that open dialogue on process and consultation for the strategic and master plans could be facilitated between councillors and QAC. Can this happen in the next month?

QLDC CEO Mike Theelen: no, doesn’t think so.  Up to councillors to make that decision, through the workshop programme or any other way, its schedule is pretty well set, “but we can undertake it if that’s the will of council”.

Mayor Boult: said he would find a way to make that happen and was happy for this to be recorded in the minutes. He aligned himself with Cllr Lewers. They have given the board the job of running the airport for council and appointed five of the six directors, whom they can change if they want to.

He called for the vote on the resolution to agree to Queenstown Airport Corporation’s statement of intent.  An ‘aye’ meant okaying future air noise expansion (just not before June 30, 2024) and forgoing the right for community consultation and councillor sign off of the vitally important, currently opaque, QAC master plan and 10-year strategic plan.

Ayes:  Mayor Boult and Cllrs Clark, Copland, Ferguson, Lewers, MacLeod and Miller.

Against: Cllrs Gladding, Shaw, Smith and Whitehead.

What does this mean when you consider who to vote for in the 2022 election? That only four councillors – Niki Gladding, Niamh Shaw, Quentin Smith and Esther Whitehead – stood by their election promises to oppose the expansion of Queenstown Airport’s air noise boundaries. Three didn’t even expend the mental energy to come up with a comment on or question of the council executive team’s false narrative, and instead voted ‘aye’ with nary a whisper of explanation – Cllrs Miller, Ferguson and Copland. Cr Lewers had thought about it and pointed to some potential hope for movement, but not this term. Mayor Boult and Cllrs MacLeod and Clark were true to form, cheerleading the QAC line and voting that way, against everything the community has told them the past three years.

Ironically, it was QAC CEO Colin Keel’s last day on the job. Mayor Boult thanked him, saying he had handled some difficult situations extremely well. He also felt that Mr Keel had been unfairly singled out for some unwarranted criticism over the past five years.

You can read our official complaint about the repeated mistruths contained in the executive team’s SOI agenda item here and a second official complaint by a WLW supporter here. In summary, the agenda item outlined incorrect purpose and role for councillors and wrongly told them they must agree for QAC to be legally compliant. These provided false imperatives and compulsion to agree to the SOI, as has been pointed out by WLW and others for the past three years.

WLW has also pointed out to councillors and governance entities that we believe Mayor Boult to be conflicted when voting to expand Queenstown Airport passenger capacity, as he consistently has.  He is also the chair of the South Island’s biggest tourism company, Wayfare Group, with its significant business interests in Queenstown and Wanaka dependent on high tourist numbers (Cardrona and Treble Cone ski fields and Real Journeys among them).  He and his fellow councillors (well, the majority of them) deny this charge.

There are three planks of “conflict of interest”: pecuniary interest, having an interest greater than a general member of the public and that the public perceives this to be so. We agree there is no direct pecuniary interest, infractions of which are adjudicated by the Office of the Auditor-General. But the mayor’s chairmanship of Wayfare does create an interest in airport growth greater than Jo Public and the public certainly perceives this to be so. These types of conflict fall outside the purview of the Auditor-General and can only be challenged at great expense through civil courts. This makes the issues of opaque and wrong process, inadequate consultation and misleading and untrue agenda items even more serious when council’s job is to enable democracy and promote community wellbeings.

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