Time to retire the squeaky wheels?

Malcolm Macpherson questions the need for both ward-based elections and community boards.

It's that time again - six-yearly city and district council representation reviews.

As always, our community boards and wards are in the firing line, and their champions are digging in - with strongly held but increasingly irrelevant arguments.

The case for community boards is that they best serve the democratic needs of Otago's widespread communities.

And while board members will agree that they cost more, slow things down, and get in the way of a district- or city-wide approach to strategic challenges, they'll also argue that none of those are good enough reasons to do away with them.

And I'd have been with them, once. But now on the outside looking in - not any more.

One of the arguments we've always rolled out is "subsidiarity" - decisions should be made close to where they have effect. This assumes that good decisions can be made anywhere, including out on the "amateur-hour" fringe.

The evidence says otherwise. A good example is the failure to modernise the Mall in Cromwell, and to locate Central Otago's district information centre at its front door - Cromwell.

The reasons are many, but mostly parochial. The "local voices" prevailing in this case are those of a small number of property owners.

You will also hear that local representatives are essential to "drive" local benefit - that without vigorous "voice", the nether regions will languish and starve.

The technically correct response - that a local authority which is not assessing community need in an even-handed way is not doing its job - is correct, but not sufficient.

Local voice is sometimes necessary. Is this the job of a community board?

I used to think so. Now I don't. It's the job of a local ginger group, able to make an effective and honest case for special treatment.

In Central Otago, community planning groups serve this purpose. The notion of a community board going to war with its parent council is bizarre - boards don't submit against their own councils.

So what about the claim that there should be similar numbers of citizens for each elected member, and a ward system best achieves this?

Nonsense. An elected member's workload, however measured, depends on his or her personal attributes, ability to influence opinion, and energy, approachability and reputation.

Some councillors and community board members hardly ever hear from the public, some are on the phone all the time.

Some put themselves around a lot, some hardly at all. Nothing to do with the number of elected members in their ward.

Local politicians will also tell you that ward-based elections ensure effective representation.

This is universally believed, and also nonsense. If the purpose of an election is to elect the best available candidates, then at large elections are best.

In a ward-based election, the most electable people in each ward get elected, not the most electable in the whole district.

One outcome: a high proportion of second-best members. It's an averaging-down process that starves an authority of the best available talent.

"Ah," I can hear the politicians saying, "but won't elections at large mean that only the big centres will be represented, and the sparsely populated parts of the district will never be able to elect someone to represent them?"

There are two answers: First, it doesn't and shouldn't matter where elected members live, if they're doing their job honestly, they'll be just as concerned for the Styx or Tarras as for Tarbert St or the Cromwell Mall.

There should be no role for sectarianism or for advocacy - the squeakiest wheel should not be a basis for allocating resources.

The elected members' responsibility is to write policy that is fair to everyone. The delivery is then undertaken by professional staff. The days when a councillor could command resources are long gone.

And second, the evidence from organisations which do elect at large actually shows the opposite. The Southern DHB (and the Otago DHB before it) has a membership elected at large (using a proportional system, but with the complication that there are actually two "at large" elections - one in Otago and one in Southland).

The outcome so far is that Dunedin (and Invercargill) are under-represented. Only three of the current seven elected members are from either Dunedin or Invercargill.

Central Lakes Trust elections (at large, but FPP) also show this feature.

With occasional quirks (no-one from Wanaka this time, three from Alexandra), "Queenstown" doesn't dominate - there has been no need for a ward-based system, even though a number of people thought it would be essential to "protect" the interests of smaller communities.

But much more to the point, where applicants live, and where the members of the trust live, are both absolutely irrelevant to the funding decisions trustees make.

In summary, there is no evidence that ward-based elections provide better representation and better governance than elections at large, and quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.

And likewise, the traditional arguments in favour of community boards are largely false, and the benefits illusory.

Malcolm Macpherson is a former mayor of Central Otago, a member of the Southern District Health Board, the Central Lakes Trust, and the Otago Polytechnic Council.


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