By Nikki Mandow
Dec. 7 (BusinessDesk) – The battle over the sale of the Auckland District Law Society building has taken a bizarre twist, with the opponents saying the way the online voting is structured means it is vulnerable to being tampered with – from either side.
Two months ago, ADLS signed a $14.9 million sale and purchase agreement for the Chancery Chambers building in Auckland’s CBD. This is despite members voting in July not to sell, and despite ADLS president Joanna Pidgeon promising not to put the building on the market if members voted ‘no’.
The contentious sale is conditional only on another member ballot. Voting for the society’s 3,500 members started on Tuesday this week and closes at 9am next Monday, Dec 10. If enough members support the proposal, the sale will go unconditional two days later.
But members say the online balloting system, run by Link Market Services, makes it possible to cast a vote for someone else, without them necessarily knowing it’s happened. It is also possible to override a member’s vote, they say.
All members have been sent a link to the voting website, with a ‘voting control number’ and a PIN number. However, the voting control number is simply their membership number, with an “I” on the front, and the PIN number is their postcode.
So in theory, anyone with access to a list of membership numbers and postal addresses could vote on someone else’s behalf. If someone had already voted, the new vote would override the old one. BusinessDesk attempted this process and could have voted, using the ADLS membership details and postcode for lawyer Chris Eggleston.
Eggleston is the spokesman for a group of members strongly opposed to the fast-track sale. He says battle lines are already drawn between the ADLS Council, which has come out strongly in favour of the sale, and some members equally strongly against it. For this reason, the voting system needs to be above reproach.
“This process is flawed. I’m sure there are numerous membership lists floating around and it wouldn’t be too difficult to get hold of one.
“We cannot rely on this vote being fair. If the ADLS Council still sells Chancery Chambers knowing the voting system is dodgy, the whole sale process could be set aside.”
Eggleston says he has been in touch with two members of the law society’s technology and law committee. He says they are concerned, but the committee hasn’t made any decision about what if any action to take.
BusinessDesk is seeking comment from Link Market Services and the ADLS.
Eggleston is also concerned that lawyers choosing the postal vote option don’t have enough time to get their vote in. Although Joanna Pidgeon told members about the vote in mid- November, she waited three weeks – until Dec 4 – to send out the forms.
Given all votes need to have arrived by 9am on Monday, Dec 10 and some members don’t live in Auckland, Eggleston says if members didn’t post their ballots back immediately when they got them, there’s a good chance they won’t be counted.
“That’s only three full business days and a weekend. If voting by post, many people risk missing the deadline. NZ Post says three business days is normal for post, excluding the day of posting.”
Meanwhile, since the $14.9 million offer from an undisclosed bidder was made public, ADLS has received two higher offers for the building, including one for $15.5 million.
On Thursday this week, members received an anonymous email urging them to vote ‘yes’ to the sale.
“A recent seismic report by Babbage Consultants assessed Chancery Chambers as 15% of New Building Standard (NBS) and Building Grade “E”, concluding it is likely “earthquake prone’,” the email says.
“The Society’s valuation of $13.9M for Chancery Chambers would likely be less if it reflected that Chancery Chambers was earthquake prone, because of the cost of works to rectify building issues.”
The email, sent from ‘email@example.com’ does not mention the two higher offers.
Eggleston says he suspects it is from the undisclosed $14.9 million bidder.
Another opponent, barrister and Chancery Chambers tenant Helen White says the members need much more information than the law society has given them in order to be able to make a decision on whether to keep or sell the building. These include detailed and independent engineering evaluations of earthquake risk and how much any remediation might cost.
The most recent ADLS accounts show $655,000 in rental income from Chancery Chambers and White says until members get more information, they don’t know whether it’s best to sell or hold onto the building.
Even if selling is the best option, it’s crazy to lock in an early offer, she says..
“Before they say ‘yes’ to the sale, the membership needs to be sure they aren’t missing an opportunity to go to market and get the best possible price.”