Questions raised over mayor‘s involvement in land-sale meeting

Questions are being asked about the New Plymouth mayor‘s involvement in a meeting about the sale of reserve land, including the transfer of $2.25 million to a private golf club.

New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Arrangements for the meeting, revealed in emails released to RNZ under the Official Information Act (OIA), come as the council considers 4000 submissions on the potential sale of Peringa Reserve to developers.

A former mayor and at least one current councillor believe there has been a lack of transparency.

The emails show that Rudy Gesterkamp, the author of a confidential proposal involving the reserve land, tried to arrange a meeting with New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom early in November 2017.

The proposal involved the council paying the New Plymouth Golf Club, where Mr Gesterkamp was a member, $2.25m to help facilitate an amalgamation with the Fitzroy Golf Club which is situated on Peringa Reserve.

This would mean Fitzroy, a municipal club, could surrender its lease – making it easier for the council to sell it.

Fitzroy golf course on the coast in New Plymouth. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

On 2 November, Mr Gesterkamp, a former colleague of Mr Holdom‘s at the lines company PowerCo, emailed the mayor to set up the meeting.

“Hi Neil, after our talk the other day my head has been spinning … at the long list of win-wins if you pursue a different approach that [is] going begging for all three parties and the citizens of New Plymouth.

“I think your offer to Fitzroy should be different. Could we catch up some time for me to explain.”

The pair email back and forth throughout the day before agreeing to meet at 11am the following Monday, 6 November.

But both men deny that the meeting ever took place.

Photo: Supplied

When a document detailing the proposal headlined “Highly Confidential and Urgent” surfaced in March this year, Mr Holdom told RNZ he had no knowledge of it.

“I‘ve never seen a document offering the Fitzroy Golf Club anything to do with NPDC apart from the historic lease documents … so no.”

The document proposed that the New Plymouth Golf Club offer subsidised life membership for all Fitzroy‘s 200-300 members. In return the council would transfer $2.25m to the New Plymouth club.

But Mr Holdom said he knew nothing about the proposal.

“No … I‘m not aware of any letter or any agreement.”

The mayor ended the March interview by inviting RNZ to file an official information request which revealed the November email exchange about arrangements to meet Mr Gesterkamp.

“You know, I would encourage Radio New Zealand to put in an OIA request for any document that fits that description because that does not sound like a council document or anything I‘ve had any involvement in.”

But later that same afternoon in March, the council‘s acting chief executive, Alan Bird, released a statement saying that he and the mayor had met with the New Plymouth Golf Club and discussed the Fitzroy land.

“We listened to them but no agreements or commitments were made.

“We advised New Plymouth Golf Club the proposal relating to the land would be subject to the 10 year plan consultation process and NPDC would continue to engage directly with the Fitzroy Golf Club.”

Although Mr Holdom ed RNZ the following day to say he had made a mistake, that excuse did not wash with former mayor David Lean.

“The mayor can talk to whoever he likes but don‘t suggest you haven‘t had a bar of anything when in fact history proves you have.”

An opponent of the reserve land sale, Mr Lean believed the confidential proposal smacked of council involvement.

“Well if you have a look [at] that document and check on about page four or five, it actually says the mayor is driving this.

“And the information about the timing required for the long-term plan submissions is hardly the stuff that happens outside of council so it has to come from somewhere in council.”

New Plymouth District councillor John McLeod. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Veteran councillor John McLeod thought all the cards should be on the table.

“I think all council business should be open and forward and everything should be open. And particularly to councillors, councillors should be privy to what‘s going on.”

Councillor Gordon Brown said only the mayor would know what really happened.

“What I will say is that I think it is very important for the mayor to be very transparent and keep councillors informed of any meetings of such a significant nature all the time and the relationship with the media is important one as well and both relationships are based on transparency and honesty.”

Mr Brown said Mr Holdom had given councillors an assurance that he had no input into Mr Gesterkamp‘s proposal.

Councillor Marie Pearce said she had no problem with the mayor meeting with people to hear their views on particular issues because eventually it would have to come before council anyhow.

Ms Pearce felt Mr Holdom, who is a first-time mayor, was still coming to terms with the job.

“He‘s a new mayor and he hadn‘t been a councillor prior to be elected as mayor. I think it takes a while to understand how local government works. I think he‘s having a learning curve.”

Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Mr Holdom declined an interview and referred RNZ to the council communications manager who said the meeting between the mayor and Mr Gesterkamp never took place.

Mr Gesterkamp said he was hoping to meet the mayor but it was called off.

“We were working towards that but he rang me back and said ‘actually I‘m canning the meeting Rudy because on reflection we‘re thinking‘ – that‘s him and his senior council staff – it‘s not a good idea for him and I to meet.”

Mr Gesterkamp‘s proposal for the two golf clubs to amalgamate went no further when the Fitzroy Golf Club rejected it.

But as part of its draft long-term plan the New Plymouth Council is still proposing to sell part of Peringa Reserve – including half of the Fitzroy Golf course – to housing developers for $35m.

It wants to use half the money to fund flagship projects and the rest to form a council-owned property development company.

A record 4000-plus public submissions have been made on the draft plan and hearings begin next week.