Is it time to bring in commissioners to manage Wellington City Council?

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Wellington Southerly Storm

It seems that Wellington City Council is failing to do its job. It’s managed to isolate itself from the residents, which has effectively broken democracy in the city, and there is no hope for any meaningful engagement after the Shelly Bay decision showed that not only do Councillors not listen, even if they did, the trust is so irreparably damaged now that it would take decades to restore it.

“Tauranga’s 151,300 residents are without a leader and facing a fiscal hole of $2 billion after a turbulent year marked by bitter infighting among councillors. “I think from the outside looking in you could argue the case that the race for the mayoralty never ended,” says Waikato Times reporter Matt Shand.” – Giving up on Tauranga

Sound familiar? Tauranga is in some serious trouble with leadership of the Council now “in the hands of the Minister for Local Government.” In this case, the Mayor has outright resigned.

“Battle over leadership”, “quite combative”, “muckraking”, “leaking”, “petty and nasty personal messages”, “childish comments”, and “It really showed, I think as well, as the childish nature of the way some of these councillors were behaving; it definitely showed that there was a massive fracturing between the two groups of councillors.”

We all know that you can draw a direct correlation between this type of behaviour being displayed in Tauranga and the kind of behaviour we see in Wellington. I don’t need to link to the articles that date back years evidencing it. Interesting isn’t it that the dysfunctional behaviour has been around for many years, not just this term. What does that tell you?

“The report fails to identify the culture of one-upmanship within a group of councillors who constantly aim to score points against me and seek publicity for criticism against me.

“They enjoy waiting for any pause or mishap as they position to pounce. They gesture and roll their eyes at each other making effort to belittle me and undermine my abilities. In this regard, I believe that the battle for the mayoralty didn’t end at the last election.”

“The simple truth is that you can’t lead people who refuse to be lead,” Shadbolt says. – The findings, the fallout, the future – how a damning Invercargill City Council review played out

Still, sounding familiar? I’m not going to quote that article further; however, I strongly encourage you to read it and see the incredible similarities between Invercargill and Wellington.

But it’s not just these three Councils; it is happening everywhere; it’s just how much it’s happening. Wellington seems to be disproportionately affected by many of the symptoms that we see above and the symptoms that Productivity New Zealand identified in a report titled “Local Government Insights.”

Let me summarise their core findings for you in terms of problems; again, I encourage you to read the report.  

– Lack of affordable housing.

– Environmental degradation.

– Risks to human health.

– Poor relationship between local and central government.

– Varied and often low capability.

– A democratic deficit at the local level.

It’s WCC through and through.

There is a lack of affordable housing, emphasis on affordable, Shelly Bay will never provide affordable housing, it will become an enclave for the very rich. And this trickle-down idea of housing is just dumb.

Despite a climate emergency declaration, environmental degradation continues apace in Wellington and meeting promised targets will not happen.

With water erupting out of the ground and sewage pouring through residential streets and polluting the harbour, I think we can safely say that the risks to human health in Wellington are increasing.

Varied and low capability is interesting. This speaks to the skill ability of not only Council but Councillors and their ability to discharge their duties. This is perhaps one of the most significant reasons we should appoint commissioners, because, with some exceptions, Councillors don’t have the skills they need to discharge their responsibilities for individual portfolios. Worse, the Council proper is failing specific key measures, which suggests they don’t have the necessary skilled people.

A democratic deficit at a local level. I.e. Engagement between the residents and Council is stuffed. We can all agree that is the case. Shelly Bay was the nail in the coffin for that and the rise of new community groups along with residents firmly turning their back on Council should be a grave concern.

I could go on. But I don’t need to do I Wellington? Council is broken, badly, and in all kinds of trouble.

On that basis, as a minimum, there should be an independent review, open to the public, and transparent, on the Council itself. I suspect that would lead the way to commissioners when the truth came out about the real issues underlying issues displaying in the real world.

Shelly bay was a vote of no confidence by the Council in what residents wanted. The public is now voting no confidence in the Council across every digital platform in existence. No amount of smiley selfies on social media by Councillors is going to restore that faith.

Unfortunately, that lack of democracy comes at the point when the Council and city most need it. Because people are (presumably) going to be asked to fork out significant amounts of money from their wallets to fix essential services. Council must engage on those plans, yet, engagement has been stabbed to death.

That may be the most significant case for commissioners. If the Council refuses to participate in engagement and democracy, then, it would be better to replace them with people who are skilled in specific portfolio areas, such as water.

So, commissioners? Not yet, but we’re nearly there. Independent audit? Definitely. Right now, and also a specific one that looks at Shelly Bay, because the Council may think by selling the land they are out of the debate, but they are not, and there are some very, very serious questions that need answering around how they arrived where they did.

Don’t talk to me about amalgamation. All we’d do is recreate this problem on a regional scale. We need to reset the Council first. 

Let’s talk about that tomorrow, and the two possible paths the Council could take right now.

7 thoughts on “Is it time to bring in commissioners to manage Wellington City Council?

  1. You had me nodding all the way until the bit about appointing someone with skills in water (I am portfolio lead for water at WCC). I have worked my whole career in pipelines and processing facilities. I was the Asset Manager for the Maui Pipeline, one of NZ’s most critical infrastructure assets

    I also voted against selling Shelly Bay.


  2. The fact that the houses won’t be “affordable” at Shelly Bay is a red herring; the trickle-down idea isn’t dumb, it’s simple mathematics.
    If you have five houses for sale and six people who want to buy a house, the poorest buyer will not be able to afford to buy a house. He will be outbid for the fifth house buy the second-poorest buyer.
    Add another house for sale; and now the seller of what is now the sixth best house will have to adjust his price to the point where the poorest buyer is able to afford to buy. This result is the same whether the new house is more, less or averagely expensive compared to the existing five.


  3. An independent audit of the Council is long overdue. On 11 December Mayor Foster acknowledged that rates funding set aside via depreciation and earmarked for renewal of the 3 waters system had been “significantly diverted” to other projects. The 3 waters are now in a state of collapse. Just what has been going on here? Where was the funding diverted? Perhaps Councillor Rush can shed some light here?


    1. Hi Odysseus. The unused funding was used to repay debt so nothing wrong there. But what I can’t understand is why the pipe renewal was not noted as a liability on the balance sheet. The consequence is that the WCC had an artificially stronger balance sheet, and access to debt, than was in fact the case.

      It is routine for forward liabilities to be accounted for on the books of private sector organisations.

      Have an enjoyable festive season all. Much to get on with in 2021!


  4. Why don’t we ask Iona Pannett about the Infrastructure, she was Chair of the committee for her last 2 terms…..
    Sean Rush has only just taken it up. Nice move Iona!

    Maybe if we stopped all Labour and Green voters having a vote for a decade, we’ll get candidates that don’t stop council doing it’s rightful business and the city could come right economically.

    1. Existing Infrastructure, then new Infrastructure, 2. running the City, 3. Councillor/Mayor ideologies and pet projects.


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