Saying that he believed the Waitakere (New Zealand) City Council had done the “right thing,” Judge Paul Barber convicted the council on six charges of failing to obtain necessary authorizations for a new building project. That is, it had done the wrong thing by not following the law, but had done the right thing by prosecuting itself for the violations once it learned what it had done.
The city council ordered six homes moved out of a flood plain, something that under local law cannot be done without the consent of the city council. Although the city council had good reason to believe it would not object to the order, it still decided to take itself to court for not getting its own consent before acting. In a statement, the city council said it was acting “in the name of even-handed administration of justice.”
Once in court, the city council decided there was little point in defending against its charges and pleaded guilty. Judge Barber fined it $800 on each of the six charges and ordered it to pay court costs. Ten percent of the fines will also go to the court, with the remainder of the money going to the city council. Reportedly, the city council also hired an attorney to represent itself against itself (which of course created a conflict of interest that should have prompted him to disqualify himself).
Thus, the city council will be collecting $4800 in fines from itself, minus $3000 (reportedly) that it paid its attorney, minus $1260 that it has to pay to the court, so that it will ultimately be recovering $540 of its $4800. Or, looked at another way, the taxpayers just paid some lawyers $4,260 for their city council to sue itself for failing to get its own consent for something it had agreed to in the first place.
“We feel vindicated by this decision,” said city councillor Vanessa Neeson of the council’s complete victory/stinging defeat. “We have been mocked for prosecuting ourselves,” she continued, “but it is a very important principle of democracy, justice and common fairness that if we are prepared to prosecute ordinary citizens and contractors for such things, we must be seen to be prosecuting ourselves too. We are not above the law.”
Also pleased by the decision were the two contractors who actually removed the homes in question. They had done so without seeking consent from the city council to do the work it had told them to do, which is a clear violation of the law. “We are quite happy the council only got a small fine,” said the owner of one of the firms. “Hopefully our fines will be only small too.” We’ll see about that.
The council also said that its “internal procedures had been reinforced” to prevent it from violating them again.