Opinion: Who's really to blame for the Christchurch council fiasco?

Photo: File image
Photo: File image
If the mayor or any councillors at Christchurch City Council are reading this, it's probably going to make you feel a bit uncomfortable.

Because, if you think you’re going to get away with letting the chief executive carry the can for the shambles that has obviously been going on under your watch, you’re going to have to think again.

Especially now that we know how slack things have been when it comes to dotting the Is and crossing the Ts right through the executive, finance and HR departments at the council. This is all coming to light thanks to an external report done by KPMG.

So we know already that Dawn Baxendale has quit under a cloud. We know that because she’s gone and she’s not coming back - and none of the councillors are saying anything about it.

Apart from the usual platitudes, of course, from the mayor in the statement put out by the council the other day.

And a number of other top-level people at the council have also left. One more today, even.

Just as we’re finding out why things have been going so pear-shaped. This report by KPMG says there was a $6.5 million staffing budget blowout in the Christchurch City Council's Three Waters unit because staff were hired without approval.

This is the part of the council that used to be run by Helen Beaumont, who was one of the top brass who disappeared mysteriously for months. And who, eventually, left the council around the middle of the year.

But that’s not all. This $6.5 million budget blowout is being attributed to poor financial management and poor documentation which KPMG says hasn’t just been happening in one division - it’s been happening right through the executive, finance and HR departments.

So the slackness that’s been going on in one part of the council is symptomatic of what’s happening in other parts.

And this is the council led by a mayor who, you will remember, was going to get in there and go through everything line-by-line.

The mayor who said not long ago that libraries were just buildings with books in and that pretty much no one would notice if a few of them were shut down. And who talked about an 18 percent rates increase next year unless there was some cutting of the cloth?

To be fair to Phil Mauger, this KPMG report may actually be evidence of his line-by-line thing in action. Which is great. But if he and any of his councillors think that this is it, that the buck stops with the chief executive falling on her sword, then they’ve got another thing coming.

Because why is it good enough for central government politicians to feel the heat over budget blowouts and runaway spending and slack financial management in government departments, but not local government politicians?

In fact, local government politicians have far more visibility to budget and actual expenditure than government ministers do - which is why I’m calling-out these councillors and telling them this morning that they are to blame as well for this fiasco.

Because that’s what it is. $6.5 million spent on hiring staff without approval. In just one department of the council. We’re not talking here about a few thousand bucks for a couple of part-timers just to get through a busy few weeks. $6.5 million.

I should point out that KPMG doesn’t say the staff weren’t required. But it does say that they were hired without the usual checks and balances and without approval. And the slackness hasn’t been limited to the Three Waters division.

Unfortunately, the ones who I think are ultimately responsible for this mess - the mayor and the councillors - we’re stuck with them for another two years. We’re stuck with a mayor and councillors who were quite happy last week to accept Dawn Baxendale’s resignation. Quite happy to let her shoulder all the blame.

But if they have any backbone, they will put their hands up and apologise for overseeing such a chaotic waste of ratepayer money.

If they don’t admit their part in all of this, then the whole lot of them - the mayor and the councillors - should hang their heads in shame.

-By John MacDonald, Canterbury Mornings host on Newstalk ZB Christchurch