22 Feb 2021

Foster's leadership questioned over Wellington library saga

From Checkpoint, 6:24 pm on 22 February 2021

'Flippant', 'opaque' and 'lacking mayoral leadership'. Wellington Mayor Andy Foster is not winning any popularity contests with some of his city councillors, as they grow increasingly frustrated with his management style.

But others maintain he's the best person for the job, while he himself has cast criticism against him as 'pure politicking'.

The mayor threw a cat among the pigeons last week with an 11th-hour proposal that opens the way for selling off part of the capital's beleaguered central library.

Councillors voted 9-6 in favour of investigating a public-private ownership model at the Long Term Plan Committee meeting.

But those against want the Auditor General to investigate what they call a "shambolic" process.

Thirty-six hours before the council was due to meet to make major 10-year decisions on the city's future, Andy Foster sent out an email, including the library proposal.

Andy Foster is confident the mayoral chains won't be handed back to Justin Lester.

Mayor Andy Foster has ruffled feathers with his latest proposal for the Wellington library. Photo: RNZ / Charlotte Cook

Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons, who holds the Libraries portfolio, was shocked at the late addition.

"It needs proper analysis, scrutiny and financial modelling, and the council has done none of that."

In July last year, the council made the decision to keep the Library in council ownership, she said.

"There's a real disconnect between what the council's decided and what the mayor's brought at the last minute to an inferior committee of the last council."  

Fitzsimons said that compelled her to write to the Auditor General, seeking an investigation into the process.

Wellington City Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons

Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons Photo: Supplied

Foster is making it difficult for councillors to have faith in the information they're getting, she said.

"The mayor's approach was flippant, it was a flip-flop compared with his previous position with council ownership, and it really doesn't comply with basic  principles of good governance and transparency."

It was disappointing and problematic, Fitzsimons said.

Councillor Tamatha Paul, who voted against the proposal, supports an investigation.

She said the mayor lacks leadership, when he should be building consensus and goodwill with councillors.

Instead, councillors were given little information about what the last-minute additions to the plan were, she said.

"That's what caused the massive fiasco on the day. It's not traditionally how a mayor is supposed to act.

"It really displays his leadership style, which isn't necessarily a team approach, it's more of a lone wolf approach."

Councillor Jill Day, who also opposed the proposal, said the last-minute changes made a mockery of the work the councillors had put in on the long-term plan.

"I'd say there is a high level of frustration amongst councillors. These last minute changes really undermine that process."

Day said the language used in the proposal was vague and she believes some councillors did not fully comprehend what it meant.

Wellington City councillor Sean Rush


But some councillors are sticking by their decision and the mayor.

"Without doubt Andy Foster is the best person around that table to be leading the council, without a question," Councillor Sean Rush said.

Rush said the topic has been whipped up into a storm, when the proposal doesn't necessarily mean the library will be sold off.

"It's an unhelpful narrative which otherwise spoils what I thought was a really good day where we went through an awful lot of good discussion.

"We came out with a long-term plan, which is bankable."  

Councillor Diane Calvert, who voted for the proposal, said a pragmatic approach is needed.

"I have absolute utmost confidence in the mayor. I just wish a number of my colleagues would get behind the mayor and the city to enable us to deliver on a fiscally affordable budget," Calvert said.

Foster said Councillor Fitzsimons' request for an investigation into the proposal is a "delaying tactic designed to muddy the waters".

He said the alternative options would include blowing the budget, delaying the library for years, or cutting money from pipes and transport.

Foster said the backlash from some councillors is disappointing and frustrating.

"Everything could always be done differently with a council that is prepared to work collaboratively, that is trust-worthy and can work creatively to deliver the solutions the city needs, instead of playing politics."

This afternoon, the mayor and Councillor Fitzsimons' clashed openly in emails sent to journalists - the mayor accused the councillor of seeking to hide a deficit in social housing and delay strengthening the library.

Councillor Fitzsimons rejected those statements as untrue.

The proposal will go out for consultation under the long-term plan and will be voted on again at a later date.