A cheque for $2000 was all it took to remove Wellington’s mayor from influencing decisions on the proposed $500 million development of Shelly Bay.
More than 1000 ratepayers made submissions on the project, and one was reduced to tears in her opposition to it – but mayor Justin Lester has chosen to be powerless on the decision-making process.
He has said he will not be voting on Shelly Bay because one of the likely developers made a donation to his mayoral campaign.
Ian Cassels, director of The Wellington Company, gave $2000 to Lester’s campaign, through his PL Property Management company.
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The minutes of a council meeting on April 26 show Lester declared a conflict of interest on the proposed long-term lease and sale of council land at Shelly Bay, having sought legal advice.
The advice made clear there was no pecuniary interest, nor was there any conflict arising from any pecuniary interest.
“There is a very low risk of a successful legal challenge to council’s decision, and your participation in this meeting on the basis of a non-pecuniary interest or bias,” it said.
While there was no legal impediment to him participating and voting, there were political and reputational considerations, and a perception of impropriety could be damaging.
“These are political assessments you are best placed to make. A political assessment could lead you towards a view to declaring a conflict (out of an abundance of caution) or abstaining.”
Because the issue was going out to public consultation, voting on the matter would not benefit Lester or Cassels, the legal memo said.
Lester said this week that he wanted to be above reproach. “I had a strong preference for this from the outset. It was about the integrity of the process,”
Not voting on Shelly Bay had nothing to do with staying onside with the Wellington Company for future developments, he said.
“Cassels donated to my campaign, but it was clear I was not his favourite (he donated $40,000 to Nick Leggett) – maybe he was just covering his bases in case I got in.
“I declared [a conflict] because of a perception of conflict. To avert the issue, I said I was not going to vote.”
He believed the development of Shelly Bay was not a contentious issue, which would be illustrated by a yes vote in council on Wednesday.
Councillor Nicola Young, who received donations of $6400 from Cassels, has followed Lester’s lead and will not be voting on Wednesday.
“We were told that we can vote, but I think it’s a better look not to vote,” she said.
It is understood councillors will unanimously vote to sell and lease council land at Shelly Bay to developers, but councillors who are unsure may make amendments (on affordability, transport and environment) to alleviate their concerns before voting.
Council documents show that, if the council voted to sell or lease its land on Wednesday, Lester along with council boss Kevin Lavery would be the delegated authorities to “finalise and execute the relevant agreements” around Shelly Bay.
A spokesman for Lester said this was standard procedure in papers, and it would be amended to give Lester’s role to his deputy mayor – a position that will fall vacant after Wednesday’s meeting when the current deputy, Paul Eagle, leaves to join Parliament.
Cassels said he viewed Lester’s decision as a lost vote for his development. “It was an unintended consequence of a decision to support [Lester].”
He contributed to election campaigns because, as a Wellingtonian, he supported the contest of ideas and good councillors, he said.
He had huge respect for Lester’s ability and performance, and understood Lester was acting for the right reasons.
“You don’t get told at the time that a donation will mean a [lost] vote … I respect the process.”