ORC tension not a good look

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.

Comments

One can only agree with this opinion. A couple of points.

1) Council and its elected members, not the CEO/management bears ultimate responsibility for the performance of the ORC's operations, both legally and via the mandate of election. As a consequence Council, not the CEO/management, should ultimately call the shots. When such a clear/direct line of authority/responsibility exists between two parties 'mediation' does not make sense - For better or for worse, the CEO/management should do as they are told.

HOWEVER

With power comes responsibility - direction must be clear. Most of the governance bodies in this town seem to play it fast and loose with the rules of committee, with predictably dire results - as we see here. This seems to be a structural issue. Both the DCC and ORC have a 'leader', that sits rather uncomfortably (especially the Mayor) between executive and legislative roles. The answer may be a specific, role on both elected councils, the equivalent of a committee secretary, whos sole role/authority is to govern procedure and to make sure that inputs to and outcomes from Council are timely, clear and properly recorded. This is not the CEO's role!

What you are saying is quite correct. However, we are not dealing with a Council and staff who are "new boys on the block". ORC and its executive should know better? Councillors are not generally experts in the legislation that controls Councils or the science required to manage and safeguard resources. For this they rely almost entirely on the Chief Executive and staff. However in ORCs case the Council is plagued with an executive who have failed to exercise good judgement. Ratepayers should not be footing the bill for a Council and Executive who are clearly dysfunctional. The last four years has shown that patching up failures has not worked and it is unlikely things will improve until the executive is replaced.

The big problem is once elected. there is no mechanism in place for the PEOPLE to remove these people from their positions. Consequently, these people are under the impression that they can act and do anything they want without any fear of repercussions. That's not the way any job should work let alone that of an elected official. The PEOPLE need to build the ability to have recall elections into local government. Let's face it, the people pursuing ORC and DCC elected positions are not the best and the brightest people. They are not motivated in making things better or correcting problems. The people that are in local politics are looking to collect a paycheck without breaking a sweat. They are not deep thinkers capable of solving complex problems. The kind of people we need in government won't go into government because they know the type of people they are dealing with; a bunch of very average people dedicated to mediocrity! Look at the background and experience of everybody on ORC and DCC. A bunch of people who haven't held real jobs, haven't produced anything of substance or have come from other goverment jobs. They get paid a lot of money and do nothing.

The above comments are largely wrong and misinformed. Councillors role is one of Governance, which means they set the strategic direction for the Council. The council management are employed to carry out the Operational activities of the council. As such, the Councillors do not have a role in the operations of the Council and it is highly appropriate for the Council CEO to ensure there is no crossover from Councillors who are attempting to interfere in the operational business of the Council. The comment above -
"For better or for worse, the CEO/management should do as they are told" is completely wrong as the Councillors cannot instruct any staff member, including the CEO, how to perform their job.

"as the Councillors cannot instruct any staff member, including the CEO, how to perform their job."

This is the position that many council managements like to take. However, BWK, if the Councillors cannot instruct/control the CEO - then who does? Does the CEO not answer to anybody in your model? it seems not, in which case bad outcomes surely become inevitable - The CEO could simply flog off the assets and pocket the money - who's to stop them under your system? When you look at it that way it's easy to see why the concept is attractive in some quarters.

Councillors have the mandate from the owners/paymasters - Therefore councillors call the shots via majority vote. For this reason a split Council is not a disfunctional one. If any council that is not bleating in unison is considered to be disfunctional, then how on earth can we tolerate Parliament's ongoing and historic behaviour (split votes, nasty public arguments in the House etc. etc.)? Should we thus transfer all power permanently to the head of the civil service (currently Mr. Peter Hughes) because under your system BWK, neither Parliament, Cabinet nor the Prime Minister have any right to tell him what to do!!

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