Bureaucracy runs rings around our elected councillors

Lee Vandervis
Lee Vandervis
Lee Vandervis wrestles with the process of project endorsement at the Dunedin City Council.

I must confess to having little success in figuring out why particular projects get pushed through our Dunedin City Council.

Understanding that we are run by a bureaucracy rather than a democracy gives some clues, but the tireless pushing of pet projects by some senior DCC managers remains mysterious. The latest bizarre project to get ticked off by councillors is the Otago Settlers Museum stage 4, an enormous wedge of glass atrium to be built to all boundaries, physical and financial.

The "Hands off Harrop" group managed to prevent a similar staff swan-song glass attachment to the town hall, but the Settlers' atrium seems to have slipped under the public radar.

It has been interesting to note the lengths some managers have gone to ensure that this $4.5 million atrium gets added to an already more than $30 million museum redevelopment. In papers presented to councillors repeated claims were made that without the atrium entranceway the entire planned flow through the museum would be compromised. The truth is that the flow through the museum would be just the same without the atrium, as long as the entrance point on the north end of the museum was the same.

In the lead-up to the final decision, one senior manager claimed it was "probably" too late to stop stage 4 despite knowing that no tenders had been accepted.

Another manager said the atrium was necessary to house the "income generating" cafe despite knowing that the cafe was planned to be situated at the other, south end of the museum, and then claimed that the atrium would produce a $3 million saving despite knowing that the $7.5 million budget was grossly inflated and sufficient to fund the even more bizarre multimillion-dollar stage 5 glass viewing tower - another "income generating" idea.

The final income generating fallacy put forward was that the atrium addition would allow a retail outlet and a function space with a capacity of 322 people for hire -like the DCC needs yet another function space!

A personal observation to me by one DCC senior manager involved was that he saw his job as "spending budgets and getting projects through". This highlights a self-serving bureaucratic culture which the BBC series Yes Minister humorously exposed. The bigger the budgets, the greater the staff numbers that can be justified and the higher managers' salaries can go.

Now the real mystery for me is why our Mayor Cull has pushed this spend-up culture on projects, including the $5.2 million stadium "extras", the Logan Park $14.6 million redevelopment (some parts now deferred), and now the $4.5 million Settlers' atrium. Mayor Cull knows all extra DCC spending will double because of debt/interest costs, and yet has publicly claimed a "Saving of $3 million on Settlers Museum" (ODT 17/11/11).

Our Mayor gilds an illusory lily by going on to say that because of loan interest costs the savings figure "could have amounted to about $6 million over the 20-year term on the loan's repayment"! These supposed savings are all bull-dust because the budget was farcical in the first place and we are now spending $4.5 million (plus interest) that we don't have, on something that we don't need.

The $7.5 million budget included a tower that was never going to be built and toilets that already have been. The DCC employs quantity surveyors to give us realistic estimates of cost, but DCC managers seem to have kept this information close and instead pushed a bloated budget at councillors which finally realised relieving massive false savings.

The sway of senior staff and the Mayor were finally too much to stop this senseless spend-up, but of those councillors who had qualms at least three had the guts to vote against the Settlers' atrium.

My hope is that with our promising new CEO, councillors will get a higher standard of more balanced information in future (including quantity surveyor's estimates) and that councillors will be able to generate and make real choices rather than just rubberstamp whatever piles of persuasive paperwork are put up by managers.

The theory of elected representatives making Dunedin's decisions may yet become practice at the DCC.

Lee Vandervis is a Dunedin City Councillor.


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