Cavernous divisions in Christchurch

While no-one would claim they are perfect, and there is room for debate round the edges particularly where meetings closed to the public are concerned, the processes of the Dunedin City Council, as exemplified by this week's pre-draft budget meetings, are an example of open democracy in action.

Admittedly the city has not had to deal with the devastating destruction wrought upon it by a series of earthquakes over the past 16 months or so, and the resultant multidimensional ramifications that would test the best of local authorities, but students of council politics in Christchurch could do worse than to cast a glance southwards.

For the Christchurch City Council seems to have got itself into something of a mess. Fissures - most councils have them - have opened up into cavernous divisions. It has reached the point where some councillors are calling for the entire council to be replaced by commissioners appointed by the Government - as happened with ECan, it's regional equivalent. Others are suggesting it is time for new elections. In the middle of it all, a row has erupted over the $68,000 pay rise just awarded to the council's chief executive Tony Marryatt, a 14.4% salary increase taking his package to $538,000, at a time when many people in the city are suffering so much hardship.

On the latter point, as Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker concedes, the handling of the increase was politically "inept".

Some would go further and suggest that the increase was not only inept but a slap in the face for the great many individuals and business owners in the city who have lost their jobs, their houses, sometimes their loved ones, and their businesses. For a good proportion of these people, Mr Marryatt's mooted rise by itself would amount to a generous annual remuneration.

While the city does face extraordinary challenges which require highly qualified managers and top calibre individuals to negotiate, the council must take the city with it. That requires openness, confidence, and a degree of sensitivity on the part of highly placed decision makers.

All of these factors were missing in the lead-up to, and fallout from, the pay rise.

Reading between the lines, the same applies to the operations of the council as a whole. The latest controversy to dog it - or at least those involved in making the decisions - is the call to spend $80,000 on a consultant to report on the council's communications.

This, it seems, was instigated without reference to the councillor who heads the requisite committee for communications oversight. The point has been made that it is not the council's communications functions that require scrutiny, rather the quality and style of its decision making.

The communications review is, it seems, only the latest in a string of important calls made behind closed doors, or at least without the ultimately protective inoculum of full council and public scrutiny. Critics of the council have singled out millions of dollars spent on the rights to the Ellerslie Flow Show, inner city developments owned by property developer Dave Henderson (of Five Mile infamy), a music conservatorium at the Arts Centre and so on.

It may well be that the decision on each of these was made in good faith, and might have been expected to be a worthwhile investment, but if such outcomes are mandated "in camera", or pushed through by powerful cliques within the council, sooner of later the people responsible will be held to account. In all such matters, regardless of how inconvenient it might seem at the time, transparency is a good insurance policy.

Dysfunctionality and division in the council notwithstanding, moves to replace it by government decree should be firmly resisted. Christchurch continues to live through difficult times.

The city and its people require sympathy and support. But they also need, as they rebuild, structures through which their will - the ratepayers in particular whose funds underpin local democracy - can be entertained, debated and incorporated in the very decisions that affect their lives. If there is to be wholesale change at the Christchurch City Council, it should come, instead, through the ballot box.

 

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