Local govt to be 'squeezed in both directions'

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 academic says.

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 mayor is.''

- chris.morris@odt.co.nz

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