Hide's call for transparency baffles council

Rodney Hide
Rodney Hide
A plan by Minister for Local Government Rodney Hide to force councils across New Zealand to open their books in new ways has been questioned by Dunedin Mayor Peter Chin.

Mr Hide used part of his address to yesterday's Sister Cities New Zealand Conference in Dunedin to outline plans for a new financial reporting system for local authorities.

• Sister cities' link lauded

Under the new regime, council staff would be required to prepare pre-election financial reports every three years, providing ratepayers with simplified explanations of expenditure over the previous term and plans for the next term.

The move aimed to encourage greater understanding of council finances by ratepayers, who would then be in a better position to "put hard questions" to their elected representatives, Mr Hide said.

"The ratepayers and taxpayers deserve to know what's being done in their name and the services they are funding," he said.

He expected to introduce a Bill to Parliament later this year, and it was hoped the new system would be in place by 2013.

However, Mr Chin told the Otago Daily Times the information was already available through council annual plans and other sources, and the new regime would simply create new costs for councils.

Mr Chin said he was "loath" to be too critical of the initiative until a detailed proposal was unveiled, but had a warning for the minister.

"Someone has got to sit down and try and put it together in the format he [Mr Hide] asks for.

"Depending on what further details he's asking for, there may have to be a whole lot of doubling up of work.

"The devil of these things is always in the detail," he said.

Council finance and strategy general manager Athol Stephens said the final form of the changes would depend on how much Cabinet support Mr Hide's initiative received.

It was too early to say how much extra work would be required of council staff, but the Society of Local Government Managers was monitoring developments, he said.

"There will be some challenges, no doubt, in it. Things will need to be tested to see if they work in practice."

Committee chairman Cr Richard Walls said it would be up to staff to collate the reports, but he worried it could simply add to council costs without any real benefit.

"I'm not quite sure what it's trying to achieve ... What other information? If people want the information, it's already there.

"I can understand what he [Mr Hide] is trying to do, and it may be laudable ... [but] there's so many reports now, and so many processes, everyone is up to their eyeballs in them," he said.

Mr Hide said the Government was trying to lift living standards by improving productivity, and improving the management and transparency of the local government sector was "crucial" to that objective.

It had quickly become clear ratepayers were concerned about spiralling rates increases, and "these concerns are well founded", he said.

Since taking office, the Cabinet had launched a review of parts of the Local Government Act while Mr Hide had urged councils to focus on "core business".

He said councils' long-term council community plans also needed to be simplified, to enhance public participation, and criticised the public consultation process as unnecessarily complex and "largely meaningless".

Last year, Mr Hide ruled out launching a government inquiry to scrutinise the council's decision to build the Forsyth Barr Stadium, despite pressure to investigate from stadium opponents in Dunedin.

- chris.morris@odt.co.nz


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