News over the last week that Sue Wells is being bought in to try and help a Council that appears on the face of it to have become tribal, and not in the right way. Chatter also from the former Deputy Mayor, Paul Eagle, that this may signal a move toward installing commissioners in the Council. So, what does that all mean and how likely is it?
- In 2012 Kaipara Council had commissioners appointed for some years after major issues were uncovered in Council.
- Many of those issues that saw that intervention are the same for Wellington City Council, in some cases, those issues are worse.
- Issues at Kaipara included poor financials, poor governance, a breakdown in relationship with the community, loss of institutional knowledge through outsourcing of services leading to “consultant capture”, and dysfunction at Council and it’s executive.
- There is a 70% chance, in my opinion, that we will see commissioners appointed in Wellington.
A note to readers:
Dear readers, this is likely to be one of my last long-form pieces on the Wellington City Council as in the next few days, with lockdown reduced to level 3, my partner and I will be moving to the Wairarapa. Rest assured I will be keeping an eye on the hometown and still commuting occasionally for work and commenting on our Council.
I will be taking up the position of the Wairarapa Foreign Correspondent for Wellington Scoop, and I am keen to understand how Carterton District Council operates and what issues that community has. I think there are some exciting stories between two different Councils that appear to be chalk and cheese.
But let’s get back to commissioners and the Wellington City Council.
Rongotai Labour MP and former deputy mayor Paul Eagle said the situation could lead to a government commissioner being brought in to help the Council, noting the facilitator recruited by Foster – Sue Wells – had previously shown support for the idea.
It is clear, as evidenced since the election last year that the WCC is dysfunctional. Constant sniping, inability to work together, lack of consensus, an organisation that leaks like a sieve and discordant voices within the machinery itself have led to, in my opinion, stasis.
In effect, what I wrote about some months ago, the risk of this Council achieving nothing more than stasis. No progress. It’s a broad statement; some areas do deliver as noted in Council reports.
Sure, we have had Covid drop itself squarely into our laps over this period; however, the Council response to this has been lacklustre with significant opportunities missed while they argue over car parks. I know Councillors, it is not quite that cut and dried; however, that is the general perception that exists in your communities.
I have people now who have never expressed an interest in local politics messaging me and asking what is going on. The damage to the trust between residents and the Council is at an all-time high.
So. Is it time for a commissioner or commissioners?
First, a commissioner can be appointed by the government when they feel that the Council is unable to function, and this is causing detriment to the city.
258 F Minister may appoint commission
(My edit for readability)
The Minister may appoint a Commission to a local authority if the Minister believes, on reasonable grounds, that a significant problem relating to the local authority is imparing, or likely to impair, the good local government of the local authority’s district or region.
It is worth reading the entirety of the legislation to understand the circumstances in which commissioners can be appointed, their powers (which are extensive), and how governance operates.
In short, the Council can request the Minister appoint a commission, or the Minister can do so if specific criteria are met. So, are criteria being met?
Let us take a case study, that of Kaipara Council when back in 2012 commissioners were appointed and there for several years. So, what happened at Kaipara and what is happening in Wellington?
In Kaipara, what triggered the commission was an issue with debt, that caused a massive uproar when the Council proposed rate increases of over 30%. That, coupled with a dysfunctional Council itself, with many of the hallmarks of WCC, saw commissioners installed.
You can read the full Report here, which was made back in 2012, and you should look for context because I am going to summarise the issues here only. As you read each of these summaries, hold the WCC in the back of your head, and ask yourself, “is this also an issue for Wellington Council?”
Kaipara had massive issues with funding. The causes were long and complicated; however, it was heading toward potential bankruptcy if you read between the lines (my words.)
The WCC has less of an issue with finance; however, when you investigate their outlying years and add in the massive debt likely to be introduced by fixing infrastructure, there is a minor correlation. Add to that the increasing disquiet by residents over spending priorities, and in the future, this could become more of an issue.
A Failure of Governance
The review team found that governance at Kaipara had failed.
“At the heart of this failure, there appears to be a poor understanding amongst councillors of what the governance role of elected representatives is.”
Feedback from some Wellington Councillors to me and others over the last few months have highlighted this as a potential issue.
“It is apparent that the Council’s elected representatives have relied heavily on the advice and direction of the Council’s Chief Executive. The Review Team has been told that the previous Chief Executive was very judicious in what information he presented to the elected representatives and that in many instances they were making decisions based on Report of the Kaipara District Council Review Team 6 inadequate information. However, an elected representative is obliged to ensure they have sufficient information to make informed decisions, and as the employer of the Chief Executive can direct him/her in this regard.”
There has long been complaint about the quality and timeliness of the information that has been provided to successive Wellington Councils, at times. Hundreds of pages of documentation sent the day before a meeting to Councillors has been seen in the past. However, the salient point here is; regardless of the information submitted to Councillors, Councillors are still responsible for governing.
“The Review Team has formed the view that collectively the current Mayor and Councillors have insufficient experience and skills amongst to deal with the significant challenges the Council is facing.”
Putting aside representative democracy, whereby we vote people into Council who may not be up to the task of running Council, a quick look across the WCC will tell you that in many cases, our representatives are not always equipped with the right skills to get the job done. This shows in some strange decisions and an overabundance of making decisions based on personal dogma, rather than evidence.
“From the Review Team’s meetings with interest groups and community representatives it concluded that in the Kaipara district there has been a fundamental breakdown in the relationship between the Council and the community it serves. A community member spoke of a ‘festering climate of mistrust in both the governance arm and the management arm of the Kaipara District Council’. People spoke of a lack of transparency in the Council and said that they were not provided with timely or accurate information. The perceived failure of the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Councillors to front meetings with the community was seen as a serious problem.”
Engagement with the Community in Wellington is and has been for some years, a serious issue that no Council has managed to remedy, with some previous Councillors and Executives pushing quietly to reduce the engagement significantly.
“Like many local authorities of its size, the Kaipara District Council has outsourced almost all of its core functions, the oversight of which is done under a ‘provision of professional services contract’. Practically the whole of the delivery chain for roading, water, storm water and waste water services, solid waste, resource consents and compliance, and district planning have been outsourced. Alan Bickers identifies that this creates a high risk of consultant capture. It is apparent that the Council has lost institutional knowledge and control of intellectual property relating to these activities, and finds itself in a weak position to set policy and undertake planning and asset management.”
Identical to Wellington.
Now let’s skip to the recommendations, because if Wellington wants to avoid commissioners being appointed, then these would be a great place to start, again, I take only snippets from the Report.
“Comprehensive governance training is provided to the Mayor and Councillors who are elected at the end of the commissioners’ appointment, through the Local Government New Zealand ‘Know How’ programme. The uptake of this training should be monitored by the Crown observer.”
“A comprehensive plan is developed for engagement with the Kaipara community at all levels (commissioners/elected representatives and staff). This should include such things as regular meetings with stakeholders and regular clinics at which ratepayers can discuss issues with the commissioners (if appointed) or Councillors.”
“Commissioners develop a service delivery policy that addresses the need to retain core functions and intellectual property in-house, the practicality of outsourcing delivery of the function or service, the costs of procuring and/or administering outsourcing, and the appropriate allocation of risks. “
Many of the issues that Kaipara Council faced, resulting in the appointment of commissioners, are the same that the Wellington City Council faces, with perhaps the exception of finances.
Also, Wellington Council finds itself fractured and in a low-level tribal war with itself, as evidenced by locally reported accounts and constant noise around “toxic culture.” This indicates that the Council may not be able to resolve the issues themselves, further supporting a move toward commissioners.
The chances of the Council being able to address these issues internally is, in my opinion, exceptionally low, which consequently increases the chances of a commissioner or commissioners being appointed. Right now, I would suggest there is about 70% chance commissioners will be called in or appointed.