New powers to be handed to New Zealand's mayors are not what
they seem, but could be part of a broader ''squeeze'' on
local government by the National-led Government, a Dunedin
University of Otago political studies lecturer Associate Prof
Janine Hayward told the Otago Daily Times the changes
would do little to strengthen the hand of mayors when
introduced after October 12.
However, they would make mayors more directly accountable for
the failings of the councils they led, and the Government's
ability to intervene in council affairs had also been
strengthened, she warned.
''It [the reform package] has the potential to create quite
new and problematic circumstances for councils, and the
solution to any of those problems will be that the minister
intervenes,'' she said.
Prof Hayward was commenting on the Better Local Government
reforms, which included handing mayors the power to appoint a
deputy mayor, create committees and appoint their chairmen.
That would replace existing rules that restricted a mayor to
making recommendations on new committee structures and
appointments to the council, which still required majority
support to be approved.
However, changes introduced during the select committee
process earlier this year had resulted in the new powers of
appointment being watered down, with a proviso added allowing
councillors to vote to overturn the mayor's wishes.
Mayors would, in future, also be expected to lead policy,
plan and budget development initiatives. New financial
resources would fund the work.
Local Government New Zealand president Lawrence Yule said the
extra responsibility would come at a cost, with mayors now
expected to be ''more accountable for their decisions''.
However, the provision of specific budgets to fund mayors'
additional work had also been removed during the select
committee process, leaving individual councils to decide
whether to budget for it, the ODT was told this week. The
results have been criticised by Invercargill Mayor Tim
Shadbolt, who told the Southland Times the new powers were
''pathetic, contradictory and illusionary''.
''Absolutely nothing has changed.
''If anything, it's been made worse ... the mayor will get
all the blame.
''The public expectation is that the mayor is leading
everything - it's just rubbish.''
Dunedin City Council corporate services group manager Sandy
Graham said the mayor's new powers of appointment amounted to
a ''technical change''.
The mayor would be able to appoint without taking his
recommendations to council, but the council could still vote
to overturn the mayor's wishes.
There was also no approved funding for the mayor's extra
responsibilities, and no firm plan to find it, she indicated.
''Staff will be working with the mayor-elect to see what, if
any, support may be required. If any additional support is
required, it would be found from within existing budgets.''
Prof Hayward said the new mayoral powers ''aren't really
going to make any difference'', as long as a mayor could work
with a majority of councillors.
However, they would be more directly accountable for
financial plans and other responsibilities. And, if a mayor
headed a hostile council, a deadlock could lead to
intervention by the minister of local government, as mayors
were now expected to exert more control over their
councillors, she believed.
''You either have business as usual or you have the potential
for a real problem.''
The minister's power to intervene had been strengthened by
including a ''menu'' of options in legislation signed off
late last year. That included the power to request
information from a council, appoint a Crown manager or a
commission, or even call a fresh election.
Prof Hayward said it remained unclear exactly where the
threshold for intervention was.
''That's concerning, because that depends on what you think
democracy is about, really.''
The reforms had also narrowed the scope of local government,
shifting the focus from the ''four wellbeings'' to prudent
financial management and core business, she said.
Together with the enhanced ability to intervene, ''they've
kind of squeezed local government in both directions''.
''If you see the mayor in that mix, it's basically central
government saying `we want someone to be accountable for this
... and we're going to make sure that if there's a problem
with that, the minister can intervene'.
''Local government is really just becoming an economic unit.
Someone has to be accountable for that, so they've said the