Less glamorous operations important part of councils’ remit

A concept image of the proposed new Clutha Community Hub. IMAGE: CCHCT/CALDER STEWART
A concept image of the proposed new Clutha Community Hub. IMAGE: CCHCT/CALDER STEWART
There has never been a council mayor or chairman, born, created, or cloned, who would prefer to officially open the valve on a new sewerage scheme in preference to turning the freshly polished handle on the front door of a new council office block.

The good rural people of Owaka, Stirling, Kaka Point, Lawrence and Tapanui can rightly feel aggrieved that the proposed new community hall in urban Balclutha seems to be a rather large distraction for the Clutha district councillors.

Fear not, good people of the Clutha district, for you are not alone, as a cursory glance at the Dunedin City Council’s stewardship of another essential utility — electricity distribution — shows.

The debacle over Aurora's neglect and therefore the DCC’s lack of oversight of that network, shows a disturbing trend of inattention towards the less sexy but entirely essential services.

As the season of goodwill approaches it would be inappropriate to mention the failures of virtually every other council in New Zealand.

However, the Wellington and Auckland councils appear to be habitual offenders when it comes to sewage discharge into beaches. (Pity the poor dairy farmer who even allows ponding on their land — let alone discharge into a water body.)

Councils are in the happily privileged state of being a natural monopolies so it would seem that laws of commerce do not apply to councils. Were the ownership of sewerage infrastructure vested in a private or publicly owned company, it is entirely reasonable to expect all the directors of such a company to be held fully accountable for their actions or inaction.

Mayors and councillors who are defined as independent contractors, seem to be able look the other way and take no personal responsibility. That certainly seems to be the case with the Clutha council, with the possible exception of one unfortunate employee, further down the food chain, who appears to be thrown or allowed to walk under the No7 bus — affectionately named Mea Culpa.

Those being directly and ultimately responsible (the mayor and the CEO) appeared to fully consider their — quote "deeply embarrassing" situation — and found it to be entirely survivable, given their expressions of remorse, and the reality that the next local government elections are still some way off.

Mayors and CEOs are not elected, paid and or appointed based on their ability to express regret, coupled with a promise to do better next time. No real-time sanction has been applied by the court on those personally and collectively responsible, which is the governing body of the council.

In 2002 the then government passed the Local Government Amendment Act which gave councils the power of general competence. In other words, councils were given the authority to engage in projects which were well outside their main functions of sewage, water, roading.

There was however a requirement for "special consultation" with their ratepayers, enshrined in the legislation.

This has been largely ignored, as nobody within local government has defined exactly what special consultation actually means. A local referendum would be a good start. The effect of that authority (of general competence) has clearly resulted in less attention being given to the basic needs of communities in favour of the highly visible yet not so essential wants and not needs.

Some of these wants have been unkindly described as vanity projects.

I wonder if many, or indeed any, of our local government representatives recall the now famous words of the British Foreign Secretary Lord Peter Carrington, at news of the invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982.

"I was wrong in the assessment of what they were doing and therefore I am responsible". He resigned.

Are there any parallels here and does it not set a standard for all elected officials? The election to public office is a generous choice by the public which must always be met with an equal measure of accountability by the recipient.

 - Gerrard Eckhoff is a retired Central Otago farmer and former Otago regional councillor and Act New Zealand MP.


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