The Evening Post
February 6, 2001

Rings Travel Plans Stir Epic Debate
Staff Reporter

The meeting was as long as a Tolkien trilogy when it could've been a 10-minute short story.

For those who like to skip straight to the last page, Wellington city councillor Mary Varnham will accompany Mayor Mark Blumsky to New York this month at a cost to ratepayers of about $14,250.

The pair - usually political opponents - will spend two days there talking to The Lord Of The Rings movie backer New Line Cinema about setting up a permanent Rings museum in Wellington.

Mr Blumsky's travel costs are being paid by Air New Zealand, and while it's a project that every councillor apparently supports, a large minority don't support Councillor Varnham going, nor having ratepayers fund her business-class travel expenses.

It took almost three hours of political manoeuvrings, squabbling and personal disparagement to reach the decision.

"We are getting so nit-picking and small-minded about this, it's getting ridiculous," Councillor Andy Foster summed up.

Councillors were bound to pick apart the travel plans while the public was excluded, but the doors were left open after Mr Blumsky said detail of the proposal did not need to be discussed.

It involves a Lord Of The Rings museum in Wellington using sets from the movie. Film director Peter Jackson was closely involved but wanted the council to "sort out the bureaucracy", Mr Blumsky said.

Mr Blumsky and Councillor Varnham will be accompanied by New Zealand's Ambassador to the United States, Jim Bolger, and Saatchi & Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts when they meet New Line chiefs on February 12.

"You will know the minute we land (back in New Zealand) whether we have been successful or not," Mr Blumsky said. "It's a yes (or) no. There is no grey area."

He conceded that while Councillor Varnham's presence would not change the outcome of the meeting, "as far as the long-term success of the project, I believe it would add value".

Councillor Varnham has been closely involved in work on the project but her opposition to ratepayer funding of Mr Blumsky's visit to Los Angeles last year, which she described as a "political junket", raised hackles among councillors.

The unusual combination of Councillor Bryan Pepperell and Councillor Sue Piper unsuccessfully proposed an amendment that Councillor Varnham be the sole council representative, using the sponsor's money to avoid any cost to the ratepayer.

Councillor Varnham said she got involved in the project knowing she could become the target of personal abuse by councillors but if successful, it would be a fantastic attraction for Wellington. "Of course, the mayor doesn't trust me and I don't trust him, but that's politics."

Crs Pepperell, Piper, Parkin, Robert Armstrong and Kerry Prendergast voted against Councillor Varnham making the trip.

The cost of her airfare will be about $10,000, accommodation $2500 and she will also receive the daily meeting allowance of $190 for the seven days she is away.

Councillor Piper said the council should find private sector funding but chief executive Garry Poole said that would be impossible at this stage.