Mayor attended St Patrick’s Day lunch while Wellington Water questioned over fluoride failure

Wellington’s mayor attended a St Patrick’s Day lunch while Wellington Water appeared before a council committee for the first time since its mishandling of fluoride in the city’s water supply was revealed.

Last week Wellington Water’s board announced an independent inquiry after fluoride was turned off to Wellington, Porirua and Upper Hutt’s water supply without anyone being told.

The council’s Finance and Performance Committee met on Thursday morning, when Wellington Water was due to appear for unrelated matters. The company wanted more money after a $4.86 million overspend on reactive maintenance costs.

Committee chairwoman councillor Diane Calvert said the fluoride matter would have been the elephant in the room if it was not addressed at a high level and allowed elected members to ask questions about it.

Calvert said she received apologies from Foster who was unable to attend the meeting between 11.45am and 2.15pm. He did not provide a reason for his absence.

Foster’s published mayoral diary shows he was at a St Patrick’s Day lunch. The event was hosted by the Ambassador of Ireland at Parliament’s Banquet Hall from 12pm to 2pm.

It’s understood some councillors were also invited but declined the invitation due to the committee meeting and its agenda, which became all the more important after Wellington Water’s failure to manage fluoride properly came to light.

Foster said as the mayor, he had to leave the committee meeting due to “prior commitments”.

“There are frequently times when there are clashes in my schedule and this was one of them.”

Foster said he was in regular contact with Wellington Water and was across the issues raised during last week’s committee. He noted fluoridation was not on the agenda.

“There is a process in place to investigate the issue around the status of fluoridation in Wellington’s water supply, and I expect the draft terms of reference for the inquiry to be released shortly.I have ensured council will have input into that document.”

Foster said Wellington Water’s performance would be further discussed at tomorrow’s Infrastructure Committee meeting.

Calvert said the state of the city’s water infrastructure was at the “highest critical level” and needed to have the full attention of the council.

“However each elected representative is responsible for their own decisions and how they contribute to resolving the city’s critical issues.”

Calvert said she also allowed questions on the fluoride failure as it was a public safety issue.

“The public don’t care about our meeting schedule and just want to know if the water is safe to drink and know their elected representatives are dealing with the matter swiftly and competently.”

She said the fluoride matter and Wellington Water’s performance was also the relevant context in respect of the company’s request for more money after the $4.86m overspend.

At the end of the meeting, after Foster had returned from his lunch, councillors were asked to vote on one final piece of business for the day.

Everyone had voted apart from Foster, who could be seen on Zoom looking at the screen and appearing to either type or write something.

“Just waiting on a vote from Mayor Foster”, someone from Democracy Services could be heard saying.

Following that there was 15 seconds of silence as Foster carried on his business having apparently not heard his call to vote.

Calvert then interjected: “Um Mayor Foster, are you voting?”

But there was no indication Foster heard her question.

“I will just assume he hasn’t voted”, Calvert said. The meeting then concluded.

Foster did not respond to questions from the Herald as to whether he had muted the committee meeting.

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