Community boards seen as good conduits of information

Cr Andrew Noone
Cr Andrew Noone
When Dunedin city councillor Lee Vandervis publicly opined paid community boards should be scrapped in Dunedin and the salaries paid instead to councillors, his words were largely met with a roar of disapproval.

Board members were not held accountable, Cr Vandervis said.

Apart from a few motivated chairmen who provided "a little useful feedback", members were simply "warming seats", were bogged down by regulations, created needless paperwork, and what they did could just as effectively be done by motivated members of the community, free of charge.

In the Clutha district, he said, volunteer community committees did the same job as the community boards.

Coincidentally, the two boards in the Clutha district recently narrowly survived the chop during a review of representation, after intense debate among councillors divided over their existence.

Clutha Mayor Bryan Cadogan said both arrangements seemed to work well. What was important was those communities' issues were brought to the council.

"It's horses for courses."

The only difference between the two was boards were legislated and more structured and committees were more driven by individuals, so their activity fluctuated.

The council listened to both equally and considered both to be excellent conduits of information to and from the council, he said.

He had no personal preference as to which was better, and communities were entitled to have what they wanted, provided it did not take any money from the council's budget.

"Hey, if they want to pay for it, they should go for it."

Clutha communities that have boards pay for them through ward rates.

Mr Cadogan thought the cost to each ratepayer in the relevant wards was roughly $80 a year.

It was possible that extra rate made the community more interested in what the board was doing as well.

In Dunedin, the city council receives from the remuneration authority a total annual wages pool of about $835,000 for elected members. From that, community board members are paid a total of about $350,000.

Board chairmen are paid an annual salary of about $16,332, and members about $8166.

Unsurprisingly, those directly involved with Dunedin's community boards disagreed with Cr Vandervis' opinion.

Of course some elected representatives would be more active than others, longtime community board member and Dunedin city councillor Colin Weatherall said. That was the nature of democracy and the case on every local authority.

With regard to the pay, it was unlikely anyone was in it for the money, he said.

He estimated for each item on a board meeting agenda, the more active members would spend another 10 hours on board business. Chairmen probably did about double that.

It translated into "a pretty poor hourly pay rate, really".

As far as the value a community board added, that came down to their passion and how far they were willing to push for what their community needed.

At present, five of Dunedin's six boards have no decision-making power other than the distribution annually of $10,000 in discretionary grants.

The Otago Peninsula Community Board has some decision-making power on roading and reserve matters.

Boards would be even more effective if they were delegated more power, albeit in a well-managed manner that did not result in too much localisation of decisions, Cr Weatherall said.

"They have the ability to dance lightly and don't have the same constraints as council.

They can have an adversarial approach, if that's the way they want to go. They are basically legalised agitation groups."

Local representation could be reviewed at any time in a poll of electors, but he believed community board arrangements would be better dealt with as part of the next wider review of representation, which is to happen before the 2016 local elections.

Personally, he would like to see the city head towards a supercity-style structure with councillors voted in at large, and community boards retained with increased delegations, similar to the Christchurch or Auckland models.

Whatever people chose, legislated representation should stay, Cr Weatherall said.

Pay aside, being legislated for gave a weight to matters community boards brought to the council table that they would otherwise not have.

They should not be constrained by the limits of their delegations.

"Boards have a guaranteed voice at council and I sincerely believe [the Dunedin City Council] genuinely listens to the information and requests it receives from community boards."

Cr Vandervis is to attend the meeting of the Mosgiel-Taieri Community Board next week, at which he can expect some frank responses from members to his position.

Deputy chairman Barry Barbour said it was obvious the minimal pay rate for being a community board member did not cover the costs people had for taking the time off work or away from their families, but it at least recognised the work they did.

As for deregulating boards, it was hard for community boards to get something on the council's agenda, let alone for groups that had no legislation backing them up.

One Otago community board that has significant delegated decision-making powers is the Wanaka Community Board.

It can make decisions on everything from car parking, street lighting and trees on council-owned land, to street names, public toilets, and recreation and reserve areas.

If the board's statutory standing was to be removed, that would counter what it was trying to achieve using its "extremely good" delegation and relationship with the council, its chairman, Lyall Cocks said.

He believed the amount of value a community board could add was directly related to its delegations.

"It comes down to how much councils put into the relationship. It's about getting the best use out of [community boards], and the best way to do that is give them some delegations."

Boards meet eight times a year for about two hours a time.

A perusal of the minutes of recent Dunedin community board meetings showed boards discussed topics ranging from street names to dump beautification.

They considered requests for funding, proofed new visitor information boards for their areas, asked council staff to investigate everything from the installation of signs and seating to the maintenance of a wharf, and agreed to send letters and submissions on various plans and policies.

They heard from members of the public concerned about issues ranging from drains to mobility scooters, and requested reports and action from the council on everything from the felling and trimming of trees to roading.

They also requested information from the council on matters ranging from road widening and pedestrian safety to the supply of ultrafast broadband to their areas, and dealt with reports received.

But board members' roles went well beyond what appeared in the formal minutes, another longtime community board member, Cr Andrew Noone, told last month's meeting of the city council.

They spent long hours networking and dealing with individuals, organisations and groups in their communities. He noted the Chalmers Community Board had recently started recording in its minutes some of the various activities of members since the last meeting.

Boards also had important roles in retaining essential services such as primary health care and adequate policing in their areas, and were trained to assist in civil defence emergencies.

They also spent a good deal of time forming and cultivating relationships with council staff members as they dealt with many issues that never had to end up on the council table.

"So I just want to say we do value community boards and what they are doing. We do rely really heavily on boards and what they do, particularly in the outlying regions."

Cr Kate Wilson, who has been involved with the Strath-Taieri Community Board for 15 years, added boards saved the council much money by getting things done more quickly and cheaply than the council could.

Change for community boards may be on the horizon whether they like it or not, as the Government encourages moves towards unitary councils by legislating to streamline the process for creating them.

The Dunedin City Council has already started investigating the "implications and opportunities" of merging with the Otago Regional Council.

A report from the city council's chief executive is imminent, but regional council chairman Stephen Woodhead says he doubts the drivers for change exist yet in the lower South Island.

That may also apply to changes to community boards in Dunedin.

Cr Vandervis might be keen, but it is not clear there is any real interest from the voting public in changing Dunedin's representation system.

At the last review of Dunedin's representational arrangements, three years ago, the local government commission did not recommend any changes to community boards.

In fact, of those who responded to public consultation on the review, only four people suggested abolition of all or particular community boards.

Three people wanted to increase the powers of community boards.

That led the commission to observe that "there seemed to be no strong desire among the survey respondents to change the number and composition of community boards".

It also noted it was "advised by the council that, in the main, the boards are working effectively".


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