Scope for more democracy with checks and balances

Is local democracy at risk? lawyer and sitting Dunedin city councillor Hilary Calvert asks.

In the past three years Dunedin City Council has functioned just as central government does, with a government and an opposition.

But the problem is that in Dunedin it means central government-style politics without the checks and balances.

Because the mayor of the day is allowed to choose the chairs of the council committees, if the mayor anoints those who are similar in their views to him or her, effectively a ''government'' is formed.

Those on the ''government'' side support each other, forming a version of the ''cabinet'', with meetings between themselves alongside senior council staff to discuss the issues of the day.

Those who are not part of this grouping are obliged to form a loose ''opposition'', because this is the only place where any public challenges and questions are likely to come from.

In central government this system has a series of built-in checks and balances which enable democratic outcomes.

For one thing, in Wellington the opposition parties and the media have access to cabinet papers and advice given to Government, as well as Treasury reports and the like.

In Dunedin, however, the chairs of committees forming the ''cabinet'' meet secretly and without any minutes which can be accessed.

They may be part of working parties with other groups, which never report back to the council, for example groups meeting with NZTA about cycleways.

They may have information either before the rest of the council or outside the rest of council papers, never to be seen by council.

And in Wellington, Parliament works with a Speaker who is charged with being impartial, and who is not involved in the voting process.

In Dunedin we have the mayor chairing council, not only with an active part in the proceedings but also with both a deliberative and a casting vote.

He (or she) is in a position to chair the meeting while being part of the proceedings, and can decide on whether standing orders are followed.

Anyone who wishes to complain about the behaviour of the chair must convince the cabinet to uphold the complaint, an unlikely outcome.

The role of the media is different, as well. In Wellington, with the Parliamentary Press Gallery, it is likely that any interview from one side of an argument will be followed up by an interview with a member of the other side, and sometimes several other sides, so the public can hear not only the government position but also any opposition viewpoints.

In Dunedin, the ODT describes what happens in council meetings, talks to the chairs of the meetings, and prints press releases, having clarified the situation with a relevant staff member.

There is little chance for any challenge of prevailing views unless a major debate happens during meetings, or unless the issues raised are ones which the ODT chooses to follow up in an in-depth way.

The lack of a formal outlet for real exchanges of views and information within council can, and currently does, lead to frequent criticisms of the ''opposition'' as being wrong and poorly informed.

Our council actually functions within the minimum requirements of the law.

However we could have a much more democratic and transparent operation of council. -

A wise mayor could be expected to choose chairs from a broad spectrum of council, including those with different views from his/her own, and taking into account the highest-polling councillors, since these are clearly the councillors who the people have considered most favourably.

•The mayor could give each councillor a portfolio which would allow the public to hear from them on a variety of topics and form a view of their effectiveness.

•The ''cabinet'' could function with full public minutes, and when they and others are forming groups the minutes of these groups could be public.

•The ODT could more often ask for a variety of views about the issues of council as an extension to reporting meetings and press releases controlled by a few chairs.

•We can encourage the ODT to extend the way it covers local council matters.

•However, right now we can choose a mayor who will allow us and those we vote for to be heard and to be challenged on the issues of the day.

•Ask mayoral candidates who they will choose for their chairs, and using what criteria. Ask whether he/she will give portfolio positions to all councillors so we may hear from them on issues.

•Ask what they intend to do behind closed doors and why.

•Ask in what circumstances they intend to use both a deliberative and a casting vote.

•Ask how they intend to ensure a variety of voices are involved in advisory groups such as those concerning cycleways or buses or 2GP proposals.

We only have one chance every three years. Dunedin deserves and needs the best, which will happen only if we demand the best of our representatives and leaders.

-Hilary Calvert is a Dunedin City councillor, who is not standing for re-election.

[The ODT stands by its comprehensive Dunedin City Council coverage. - Ed.]


These opposing parties within local government: do they represent left/right/centre right/centre/left right out groupings as in The House? Ratepayers appreciate astringent critique of Council matters, but not political partisanship. Co-operation, not unrelenting conflict, is progress.

Dunedin is 'cliquey', new arrivals are told. Lobbying is very Kevin Spacey. If it streamlines procedure, fine; if it is to destabilise and subvert, not so much. I'm not sure into which category private canvassing of residents on Council planning fits.

As for the ODT, I presume they run items according to newsworthiness. Many of these have been statements from Ms Calvert.

Having had my say, it would be a better Council if HC stayed.

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