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Continuing unedifying spats between some councillors and management at various Otago Regional Council meetings will do nothing to improve public perception about the organisation.
In February at the audit and risk subcommittee meeting, corporate services manager Nick Donnelly described a proposal for a working party of councillors to be involved with a review of contract management as a load of rubbish and unworkable.
Chief executive Sarah Gardner later said decision-making on the fly at meetings that created work and drew staff away from budgeted work programmes and their normal roles was becoming a serious problem.
Last week it was the turn of the governance, communications and engagement committee to tie itself in knots during discussion of Mrs Gardner’s protocol for staff/councillor engagement.
Mrs Gardner said her report was formally recording what had been in place since the start of the term and which she had advised verbally and through email on occasion.
The report arose from a previous convoluted discussion in December at the council’s implementation committee. At that meeting Mrs Gardner made it clear it was her job to set the protocol about contact between councillors and other staff and that any document produced would be for noting not debate.
At that time some councillors expressed concern that they were being kept in the dark about the names of some new staff working in their constituencies, not because they wanted to direct them, but they might want to refer constituents to them or know who they were and what their role was should they encounter them at a meeting.
The protocol says the correct procedure outside of council, committee and workshops/briefings is to direct any inquiries to the chief executive or the relevant one of five general managers.
Confusion reigned at last week’s meeting after it was suggested the protocol, which is tied to the council’s contentious code of conduct, should be included in information to go to Bruce Robertson who the council decided in February should undertake a review of the code to address the issues raised by Len Andersen QC. (Mr Andersen raised concerns last year about the incomprehensibility of the code and the confused procedures within it which could expose the council to the risk of litigation if a complaint were upheld. His views followed an independent investigator’s report which did not uphold a complaint lodged by Mrs Gardner against Cr Michael Laws.)
Mrs Gardner’s understanding was Mr Robertson’s review was a narrow one and her protocol would not be relevant, but some councillors felt they had agreed to a comprehensive code of conduct review.
The committee eventually decided that rather than accept the motion passed at the February meeting at face value, it needed to go back to review the surrounding discussion in the hope this would provide clarity.
Anyone viewing these tortuous and sometimes farcical meetings might wonder if the first thing the council should be doing to improve its governance is sharpening up its decision-making and meeting procedure.
Another controversy hanging over the council involves the inquiry to be carried out by retired High Court judge Sir Graham Panckhurst into the council’s actions over Andrew Haulage dumping demolition waste into the river in Balclutha.
What the public might make any of this in an election year is anybody’s guess.
Are some councillors flexing their pre-election muscles to distract voters from rates rises and what the public perceives as the council’s poor performance, particularly on water quality? Is the council management too narrow-minded and controlling, or are councillors frequently crossing the governance line and unhelpfully straying into management and hindering staff from completing core work?
Whatever it is, it is not a good look.