Spotlight on power imbalance

The drama at the Gore District Council is a local example of a nationwide predicament, Callum Purves writes.

After six months of drama, we now have a truce at the Gore District Council. How long that will last remains to be seen but the whole saga has shone a light on the power imbalance in our councils.

You would be surprised how little power your mayor and councillors actually have. That’s because councils are not run in the same way as central government.

In Parliament, ministers are drawn from the government of the day and are responsible for what goes on in their departments. In councils it is different. Politicians are charged solely with determining strategic policy, while the operational delivery of those policies is left to unelected officials.

That may seem on the face of it to be a helpful distinction, but the reality is that it gives the unelected bureaucrats all the power.

While councillors should not be getting into the minutiae of things such as bin collection shift patterns, the way any policy is implemented, determines its success.

Councillors who try to get too involved are often threatened with legalese or codes of conduct.

A recent example was over the Wellington City Council’s budget. Cr Ray Chung issued a survey encouraging people to make a submission on the plans. He was admonished by the chief executive and told it might compromise his ability to take part in future decisions on the budget.

It seems absurd that a councillor could be disbarred from representing his constituents simply for encouraging engagement in the democratic process.

The chief executive could not tolerate a councillor not using the council’s preferred submission form, one that was clearly designed to skew responses in favour of their preferred 12.3% rates rise.

For many councillors, threats like this are sadly enough to put them back in their box.

Sometimes this can even be a mutually convenient arrangement. Councillors provide democratic legitimacy to the work of officials, but they don’t really have to get bogged down in detailed policy-making. They can go about shaking hands while the officials get on with the big stuff.

That’s not to impugn the motivations of councillors. Almost all will undoubtedly genuinely care about and want to improve their communities. But these arrangements are unhealthy for local democracy.

It’s also why we end up with so many white elephants. Councillors who rely on senior officials can feel duty-bound to defend their pet projects even if their constituents are opposed.

These problems are not limited to New Zealand. I experienced much of them myself when I was elected as the youngest ever councillor on my local authority back in Scotland.

Senior officials would reinstate budgets that had been removed by councillors without telling them, refuse to progress projects councillors had allocated funding and cancel meetings when it looked as if votes would not go the way they wanted. Such examples could fill an entire column of their own.

Each council is different, but officials on all of them have tricks at their disposal to frustrate the wishes of democratically elected representatives and therefore the voters.

All this can mean that, however you vote, the same policies will be brought forward by the same officials with the politicians acting as little more than rather expensive rubber stamps.

Whenever a councillor or a mayor comes in wanting to break this cycle, particularly a young one, it is a bit like a virus entering the body. The council’s immune system kicks into action and does everything it can to flush it out.

That seems to be what has been happening in Gore.

The initial eagerness of most councillors to support the unelected chief executive over the elected mayor is indicative of a cosy consensus to which Ben Bell’s election presented something of a challenge. Recent media reports about the council’s culture over the past two decades also suggest it has not been a particularly pleasant one.

While councillors have read the room and backed down from a vote of no confidence in the mayor, it is not clear what difference outside intervention will make. If the chief executive remains unwilling to allow the mayor to try to implement his mandate, the only viable way forward is for the council to remove the chief executive, but they seem unwilling to do so.

When people vote in a local election, they rightly expect that whoever wins will hold the levers of power, but the current system does not deliver this.

In the longer term, we should be looking to other models that work successfully abroad where these problems are avoided. In German federal states, for example, the mayor aided by a team of dedicated and neutral public servants effectively is the chief executive.

But for now, whether you voted for Ben Bell or not, if you believe in local democracy, you should be willing him to succeed.

—  Callum Purves is campaigns manager for the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union and served on Perth and Kinross Council in Scotland between 2017 and 2022.