Cheat sheet: The storm around the Porirua mayor’s spending

In the final week of the local election campaign, Porirua mayor Mike Tana has been embroiled in yet another brouhaha around how he has spent public money. What’s the latest, and what will it mean for the race? 

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What’s all this then?

“Potentially unusual” transactions have come up on the petrol card of Porirua mayor Mike Tana, in the latest in a long string of episodes bringing his spending into question. The council’s chief executive Wendy Walker spoke to the office of the auditor-general about them, who passed it on to the council’s auditors. They closed the investigation after Mayor Tana didn’t provide the required information, and it could now get bumped up to police.

What does unusual transactions mean?

Potentially nothing, but if that’s the case an explanation could be easy to come by. The story was first broken by Stuff, who reported that it related to “a number of times” that Tana’s 60-litre mayoral car had been refilled in the space of two days, according to Tana himself. They didn’t necessarily correspond with travel to events in his diary, raising questions about what the car was used for, or even if the card was being used to fill another vehicle – Tana denies this.

Is that a lot of petrol to use?

It depends how much you’re driving, but Kiwiblog’s David Farrar crunched some rough numbers on that. Basically, he would’ve had to have travelled about 500kms to empty the tank. That would take you to Hamilton from Porirua, if you’re wondering. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility for a mayor to travel that much over a busy two days, particularly a mayor who is noted for getting out and about. But again, why is it then being sent up to the video referee?

How has it gone down with his colleagues?

Councillor and mayoral candidate ‘Ana Coffey sent an originally private email raising concerns, but an explanation hadn’t been forthcoming. Nothing came of it except a post on Mike Tana’s Facebook page saying that he hadn’t done anything wrong, and would cooperate fully. He also accused those bringing it up of “politicking” as the election drew near.

So Coffey released the letter publicly. In it, she hammered him for not providing the information to councillors, putting blameless staff in the gun, and “not being responsive to the seriousness of the situation”. It was an expression as well of the extreme frustration many councillors have come to feel with Tana, after repeatedly having to demand transparency around spending. It also doesn’t help that Porirua’s Council is hard up for money, along with many of the city’s residents.

This has happened before?

This has happened many times. There were cash withdrawals on a council credit card, which resulted in council staff removing the ability to withdraw cash on it. He voluntarily returned that card in the end. Some questioned expenses that were then reimbursed as well, but that isn’t cost-neutral for the council organisation, as there are costs involved both in looking into the expenses, and effectively loaning the money out. There have been many other incidents, and there are generally explanations, or at least admissions of “honest mistakes” from Tana. But Coffey says there’s a pattern of “gaslighting” in those explanations – expressions of honesty alongside accusations that he’s being set up. “I am bewildered that as a councillor who has a responsibility for the stewardship of public money, I am being accused of doing my job,” she said on Twitter.

What will it mean for the race? 

It came out at an interesting time of the election period. As of October 7, only 15.8% of eligible voters had cast a ballot – 2.2% lower than at the same time in 2016. That could rise with more deliveries of the post, but it could well be that a lot of voters were still making up their mind when the story broke. It could be the last thing they read before filling out their ballot. If that’s the case, it will come down to whether or not they trust Tana’s explanation.

On the other hand, so many stories about Tana’s spending have been on the public record over the last three years. Voters may have already made up their minds long ago about the allegations. Either way, if they want to express a view on it, time is quickly running out.

The Spinoff local election coverage is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism, click here.

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