The story came out earlier in the week in the NZ Herald that Len Brown had his own personal gym set up, using equipment worth $5,198 that was paid for by ratepayers. At the time, I barely even glanced at it. Firstly, plenty of companies set up in-house gyms for their employees – employee health and well-being is a good thing… Secondly, just over $5,000 worth of gym equipment didn’t sound like a particularly large amount of money. And thirdly, it was a story by Bernard Orsman, who seems to have a personal vendetta against Mr Brown. Another anti-Brown story by Orsman – well, who’d have thought?
However, Rodney Hide highlighted the story this morning, again in the NZ Herald, which got me to actually read the original article properly. Mr Hide goes somewhat over the top (as he tends to do on occasion) by trying to compare the situation to employee theft. However, the major issue is the secrecy and lack of transparency by the Auckland Mayor and his staff.
Let’s look at the email trail.
On 24 November 2010, Phil Wilson (Mr Bown’s chief of staff) emails the council’s sport and recreation manager, Ian Maxwell, asking (in the Herald‘s words) “if there was any possibility of getting used equipment from a council facility or a supplier who could loan or sponsor it”. But here’s the kicker (in Mr Wilson’s exact words):
“The sensitivity, though, is that we don’t want to be seen to be spending any public money on him.” [emphasis added]
That speaks volumes. The Mayor and his staff have no issue with the money being spent. They simply don’t want anyone to find out. Secrecy is key.
Mr Maxwell replies that he would get some equipment, to which Mr Wilson responds with, “The almighty will be very pleased”. Hmm… What more can said to a response like that?
Being a good employee, Mr Maxwell was as good as his word. Brand new equipment was purchased, costing $5,198.85. Did the funds come from Mr Brown’s Mayoral budget? Of course not, as that would have been easily traced. Remember, secrecy is our watchword here. Instead, the money was taken from the fitness renewal budget on a “loan basis”. The Mayor got his equipment, he didn’t have to spend any money on it, it was kept off Mayoral budget books and because it was a “loan” it didn’t have to be declared as a gift!
I have no problem if the Mayor of Auckland wants to blow $5,000 of his personal budget on gym equipment, so that he can maximise his efficiency (although it may be easy for me to say that, given that I’m a ratepayer in Gisborne, rather than Auckland!). What I don’t like is the inherent culture of secrecy and lack of transparency that a story like this exposes. Public funds are not secret slush funds for the political elite.