Local government in this country is not delivering to
the expectations of communities, and not just in strife-torn
Christchurch City, writes Mike MacLeod, chairman of the Draco
Organiser Peter Lynch leads the protest march to the
Christchurch City Council offices on Wednesday to deliver a
letter calling for greater transparency. Photo by Geoff
If the local government sector was a person they would be
ponderous, socially-inept and morally bankrupt. They would be
filthy rich and very lazy. If you had a problem they would
not care and if you complained because something they did
hurt you or your family, their response would be "so sue me".
Not the sort of person who would voluntarily join a support
group to seek help.
The Christchurch City Council is squirming under public
scrutiny at the moment. There is a rift between the
councillors, ratepayers think the CEO gets paid too much and
is in cahoots with the mayor, people are being kept out of
perfectly safe houses, while thousands of buildings have been
razed because they never really complied with earthquake
standards or were built on large ponds of unstable swampland.
But these problems are not limited to that city; they are
representative of the local government sector as a whole.
Since the global recession hit, New Zealanders have begun to
focus less on global issues and more on local ones.
Grassroot community organisations are growing in popularity.
As citizens start paying more attention to local issues, some
uncomfortable home truths are emerging. I will give voice to
one right now, and I am sure many will agree: local
government in this country is not delivering to the
expectations of communities.
Nowhere has the shift from global to local been more evident
in this country than post-earthquake Canterbury.
Residents' associations have worked with community boards to
get on top of many of the larger social issues.
Community gardens, time banks, bus services and micro-schools
played a role in the response to the earthquakes and the
people of the city are grateful.
They - more than any in this country - appreciate the
importance of neighbours and neighbourhoods.
In the days following the February earthquake the Government
showed little faith in the ability of councils to cope and
that took ratepayers by surprise.
Back then they believed in local government.
Now the chickens have come home to roost. As a former
colleague pointed out to me "the Christchurch City Council
has always been like this. it's only since the earthquake
happened that ratepayers have started to take notice of
Suddenly the city council - which had coasted along under the
radar for many years - has been thrust into the spotlight.
Albert Einstein once said "we can't solve problems by using
the same kind of thinking we used when we created them". The
problem the ratepayers of Christchurch face has been created
- in my opinion - by a lack of openness, transparency and
public accountability. Even though the Local Government Act
2002 clearly outlines how local authorities should be run, it
seems to be treated more as a loose guideline than a
statutory requirement. And there is absolutely no recourse
open for the public to demand compliance with the Act, aside
from the extreme provisions allowed to the minister.
Nick Smith has chosen to ignore the Act in the case of
Christchurch and create an official position that has no
basis in law. In doing so he is taking the same attitude as
councils often do: "we don't need to abide by the law. We are
He is using the same thinking that caused the problem, so it
is no solution, rather a sticking plaster to cover a disease
afflicting the whole of the local government sector.
While many people are seeing the appointment of the so-called
Crown Observer as an inspired solution, the consequences of
the minister's appointment are serious. If the Crown Observer
is not a legally-sanctioned appointment, then is he subject
to the Official Information Act?
The Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act?
The Public Records Act?
How do we know what advice he is providing to the
Minister Smith has said the appointment was made at the
"invitation" of the council, but who is paying him?
And why is he reporting back to the minister?
Council Watch agrees whole-heartedly that sacking the council
would be ridiculous but the Local Government Act is not
limited to that course of action. The minister could have
achieved something akin to a Crown Observer by using S.254 of
that Act. But there is a process required; you cannot just
interfere with a local body - it has to be open and
transparent, in full public view.
Ratepayers round the country are already calling for the
appointment of Crown Observers to their councils, but placing
an unsanctioned observer with no legal standing in a council
solves nothing. The changes needed are systemic and
legislative. The sector as a whole needs to start performing
better, be more adequately resourced by central government
and start working in partnership with local communities to
This is the perfect time for the citizens of New Zealand to
take issue with the minister's actions, before this thing
starts getting out of hand.
The Draco Foundation is dedicated to the protection and
promotion of democracy and natural justice in New Zealand and
among its many activities operates Council Watch and the
National Residents Association Database. Further information
can be found at www.civilsociety.org.nz.