Christchurch City Council tensions

March 21st, 2013 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Lois Cairns at The Press reported:

Simmering tensions between some Christchurch City councillors and senior staff are hindering the city’s ability to make progress on key issues, insiders say. …

Cr Barry Corbett, who is not seeking re-election in October, said some councillors engaged in political point scoring which was destroying relationships within the council and hindering progress on key issues.

“Some councillors, when they wake up in the morning, all they think about is how they can stick it to the council, how can they embarrass Bob [Parker], and how they can make sure that National doesn’t get elected next year,” Corbett said.

If they had issues with staff, they tended to raise them in a public forum rather than approach them directly.

Naturally, that created tension because staff felt they were being “hung out to dry”.

Asked if he felt the tensions between staff and councillors hampered the council’s ability to make progress on key issues, Corbett responded: “Heck, yeah.”

This is one of the weaknesses of the Council model. It works pretty well in smaller areas where there are not party politics. But party politics has infested the larger city councils and you get Councillors who are more interested in bad publicity for others than making the Council work well.

We solve this issue at national level by having the Government¬†separate¬†to and accountable to Parliament. Not all MPs are Ministers. We have an Opposition who don’t actually have to work with Government staff until they are in Government themselves. Their job is to oppose and scrutinise and propose alternatives – but not to govern.

At the Council level, all Councillors are Governors. They all sit on committees that make decisions and all have an equal vote at the Council. There is no Cabinet or Ministers. So when some Councillors have an agenda of trying to screw over others, of course you get dysfunctional.

As I said, I think the Council model works well for smaller authorities. It works less well when you have party politics. So one solution there may be to recognise the reality and move Councils to more of a parliamentary model. This means more executive powers to the Mayor and Councillors picked by the Mayor to chair committees. The other Councillors can then focus on scrutinising the executive Councillors, holding them to account, approving bylaws and budgets. And at electon time they can campaign as a team for a change to their team.

I prefer the model where there is no party politics, and Councillors focus more of the wellbeing of the Council, not their political interests. But the bigger you get the more inevitable it is you get the “necessary evil” of party politics. And party politics allows voters a clear choice. But if you have party politics then you need an executive and an opposition as we have in Parliament.

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11 Responses to “Christchurch City Council tensions”

  1. gazzmaniac (2,319 comments) says:

    You state that councils work well for smaller authorities, but when they get too big they become dominated by party politics.
    Your solution is to have little city based mini-parliaments. My view is that will only make party politics worse, not better.
    You even support amalgamation in Wellington, which most people outside the city don’t want, and will just make the place even more dysfunctional.

    My solution is to have smaller councils. It’s becoming quite clear that the Auckland super city is dysfunctional, and that some of the other large city councils are also dysfunctional. It’s the smaller councils like the Hutts, Taupo, Buller, etc., that seem to do well.

    Why do you support making councils bigger when they become dysfunctional? Why not make them smaller and more efficient?

    [When you have one big urban area, it is silly to artificially divide it up. Most of the issues are regional issues such as transport, water, facilities etc. You can't treat a city the same as a small town]

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  2. JeffW (324 comments) says:

    Gazz, I am not sure that Auckland is dysfunctional per se. It is just that we have elected too many idiots to run the show. No matter how big or small, if voters wish to elect idiots, there will be a mess. It goes back to the key issue in democratic systems to decide who runs governments – the ones who spend up large and waste people’s money are far more popular than the ones who follow and have to clean up the mess.

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  3. lazza (373 comments) says:

    Your suggestions of party politics for NZ Councils prove difficult (in Auckland Council f’rinstance) when the Mayor and his fellow travellers are so openly partisan with their socialist solutions, (note I did not say Labour but it is a close call).

    Add the influence in Auckland of the obnoxious Watercare and the Head Office Queen St kinda decisions of unelected CCO directorships to the mix up here and “this” mileau is more the culprit than any simplistic comparison with “National Politics” can explain.

    If I was to generalise, (hardly!the right word) it is that a Horses for Courses sort of thing rules OK?.

    It often depends on the X factors of leadership, personalities/chemistry and “The Numbers” when it comes to votes in Council Chambers NZ-wide … whatever the size and shape of the TLA/Regional. That’s just the ruff and tumble of NZ LG “politics”.

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  4. Redbaiter (8,032 comments) says:

    “But party politics has infested the larger city councils”

    Language that is far too submissive.

    The left have contrived to make local councils an expansion of their central government political power base.

    It is the same old same old.

    People struggle to be free from the left, and the left are always putting up gates and fences to entrap them.

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  5. markm (105 comments) says:

    Back when the last Labour Mayor was in Christchurch I had regular dealings with council staff.
    One had his office set out as Labour party campaign headquarters , with all the walls covered with meeting notes , calendars strategies etc and he was quite open about what his role was.

    He was a ratepayers funded Labour party employee as he was completely hopeless and inadequate at the job he was supposedly employed.

    Labour party politicking has always been a big thing in the Christchurch council and to the detriment of the city.
    I was involved in a project where a very green politician stood up and agreed with my supposed right wing views.

    She was promptly reduced to tears and told she wouldn’t get the safe Labour nomination.

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  6. flipper (3,847 comments) says:

    Folks the fundamental problem with local government is that it is local and unaccountable.

    The reality is that mayors and Councils, big and small, elected by residents (actually, only ratepayers should vote :) )have very little control.

    Forget about all the “governance” crap. The legislation brought in by M.Bassett sought to impose a corporate style of operations. Helengrad’s mob went further and deprived us of the last semblance of accountaility.

    Town Clerks went and in came Chief Executives a la the Toyota model. But it simply lowered the standard of councillor (political hacks, and children even, being elected instead of folk with real business acumen), and turned a part-time civic duty function into full time (attending endless meetings to no real purpose) paid employment.

    Moreover, there is no councillor/mayoral responsibility. Local Government in NZ is underwritten by Central (taxpayers). In the US local government can and do, frequently, go belly up.

    The local government political and administrative classes fought tooth and nail to oppose the small changes to their legislation instigated by Nick Smith (later David Carter).

    And remember, McKay in Auckland gets paid almost twice what we pay the Prime Minister.

    The whole silly thing is custard and it is our fault for allowing stupid politicians to be swayed by local upstarts.

    No David, tinkering is not the solution. Scrub the lot and start again.

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  7. gazzmaniac (2,319 comments) says:

    [When you have one big urban area, it is silly to artificially divide it up. Most of the issues are regional issues such as transport, water, facilities etc. You can't treat a city the same as a small town]

    Kapiti and Wairarapa have totally different water catchments to Wellington City. They are not part of the same urban area. The Hutt Valley is really a separate urban area also.
    Highways and unfortunately the railways are the responsibility of the state not council.
    I can appreciate having a regional approach to things like buses etc, however this can be done with agreements between councils not amalgamation. In the case of water, you can look at South East Queensland which has several councils who share the infrastructure of the South East Queensland Water Commission. It’s had some teething problems but it seems to be working now.

    I fail to see how a bigger local authority is good for residents and ratepayers. It will only be good for politicians and bureaucrats.

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  8. Akld Commercial Lawyer (165 comments) says:

    From where I sit, there are two distinct issues in play – a governance issue and a policy issue.

    In the Chch instance, what is primarily being alluded to is a breach of the Council’s code of conduct. This is a governance issue. All TLAs are required by the Local Government Act 2002 (see Schedule 7) to adopt a code of conduct. Once adopted, all elected members are required to comply with the code. Effective performance by a TLA requires a high level of cooperation between elected members and staff – such codes address the matters to which the Press article refers (including treating employees with courtesy and respect, avoiding public criticism of employees and raising concerns about employees only with the chief executive).

    If things are as bad as the Press paints them, then it is a governance matter and the code should be enforced. New Plymouth provides a recent example of a breach of such a code and its enforcement – which resulted in censure of an elected member and removal of their appointment on a committee.

    By contrast, the Auckland issue is one of a difference of opinion about (big picture) policy. On this score, a number of interested parties would, I suspect, like to think that the Minister’s visit will hammer out a workable solution – and help the Council save face after painting itself into a corner over finding a home for the folk caught up in the growth conundrum who don’t expect to live in apartment style living around one of the Council’s transport hubs or nodes (I forget which label).

    On the former, even if there is no breach of the CCC code of conduct, anyone who is shown to be an impediment to the Chch rebuild should expect to be white anted and the good folk of Chch can have their say on polling day. By contrast, in Akld, and despite the bravado – I suspect that anyone not paying close attention to what Stephen Joyce has been saying for the last 2 years (Wgtn, not the current mayor of Auckland, will decide where the taxpayer’s money is spent on infrastructure in Auckland) might find themselves in a lonely place. And so they should.

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  9. labrator (1,849 comments) says:

    Most of the issues are regional issues such as transport, water, facilities etc.

    Why is this so hard? Outsource it. You say the government shouldn’t own assets like power stations why the hell should councils own assets like transport, water and facilities? If the Wairarapa wants to use the same water supplier as Kapiti, good for them. If they don’t, good for them. Why you’d need Wellington to have any involvement in facilitating joint water supply for Kapiti and the Wairarapa only a died in the wool politician could come up with.

    Edit: Missed your later post Gaz

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  10. lastmanstanding (1,241 comments) says:

    Auckland Council is a governance joke. The real power lies with McKay and Ford and all the unelected Directors of the Council pretend corporations like ATEED etc. The Councillors and Local Board reps are fed bullshit and kept in the dark like mushrooms. They dont have the will capacity or capability to stand up to the CCOs directors and so they just rubber stamp whatever is put in front of them.
    IMHO we need to go back to pre 1989 with local government with people elected by people they know and trust to look after their local interestsand local matters and Regional Council of locally elected people to deal with the big stuff.
    Until that happens expect to see rates continue to rise at a significant multiple of the CPI.

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  11. redeye (638 comments) says:

    [When you have one big urban area, it is silly to artificially divide it up. Most of the issues are regional issues such as transport, water, facilities etc. You can't treat a city the same as a small town]

    Paris has around 2500 local councils.

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