Penny Wise and Town Foolish

While Public watchdog Penny Bright’s infamous stoush with Auckland Council over her refusal to pay her rates plods along in the District Court, a parallel defamation claim lodged by Ms Bright in a the stephen-town and penny brightAuckland High Court earlier this year is gathering steam for some unsettling reasons.

On the rates dispute first, the majority view appears to be in line with Auckland Council’s PR campaign that Ms Bright is trying simply to get out of paying her rates and, by doing so, is placing an unfair burden on the rest of the ratepayers.

Ms Bright maintains her refusal is in response to an alleged breach of an implied contract Auckland Council has with ratepayers to divulge where ratepayers money is being spent and that Auckland Council’s refusal to “open the books” on commercial sensitivity grounds is a smokescreen which foments misfeasance of public monies.

Ironically, Ms Bright’s defamation action against Auckland Council Chief Executive Stephen Town personally for an October 2014 press release asserting Bright “has made wild and inaccurate accusations about the Council and its probity” appears to be providing a microcosm of proof destined to decide who is right.

Auckland Council is paying Town’s defence to the $250,000 defamation claim.  In response to an Official Information Act request seeking to know the legal costs so far incurred, Auckland Council official Turi McLeod-Bennett last week responded “participation” by Council has seen $104,349.73 paid to Simpson Grierson Barristers and Solicitors ahead of any interlocutory appearance.  Information not requested but provided in the response is that Council has, in contrast, paid $6,416 in direct costs in their rates case against Ms Bright going back to 2007.

The OIA response claims “The council has no choice but to participate as the defendant.”  This contention was unsupported.  Before filing, Ms Bright offered to settle the defamation for $10,000 and a retraction.  Town flatly refused.  She has not named Council as a defendant.

The revelation that Council has paid over $100,000 to external lawyers to defend Mr Town ahead of any legal arguments is merely mindboggling until one reads paragraph 25 of Town’s statement of defence which accepts the pleaded defamation is an exception to Town’s defence of honest opinion.

Notwithstanding Town’s admission, Simpson Grierson have filed an application to summarily strike out the claim.  Their fees to Council for comparably little work to date suggest they may extract $200,000 or more of ratepayers’ money before any determination.  A substantive hearing, with costs projected on the same scale could cost the Council much more.

Last month Bright was provided with discovery from Council which reveals Town’s press release has other finger prints on it as well.  One enthusiastic email from Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse commented ahead of its publication “Release is excellent.  Good work. P”.

It seems evident the Chief Executive’s pride is unbridled by common sense or financial sense, possibly giving a broader insight into his financial prowess at managing Council expenses generally.   Perhaps this is expecting too much from a man whose Council salary is only $630,000 per year, a few scratch more than the $487,000 salary of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Zealand.

Ms Bright demand for financial transparency from Council as to what they pay private contractors understandably gains traction when the few Council pay-outs we know about in her own case are exorbitant by any normal standard.  It remains to be seen if this knowledge will make any difference to increasingly burdened Auckland ratepayers.