New Zealand local councils not fit for purpose - academic

9:12 pm on 5 March 2021

A long-time councillor says inexperience, personality clashes and infrastructure costs are at the root of ongoing council infighting around the country, while a local government academic believes New Zealand's sector is unfit for purpose.

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Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas, Lydia Anderson, Andrew McRae

It comes as Stuff reports Cabinet slashed a billion-dollar bail-out fund for water infrastructure by $239 million and as Wellington City Council backtracks on a proposal to sell-off part of the city's central library and cut its book budget by 40 percent.

The perfect storm of problems has Massey University senior lecturer Andy Asquith echoing a call late last year to hold a Royal Commission of Inquiry into local government.

Dr Asquith wants an overhaul of the sector which he says has become a "joke" to the public who have had enough of council squabbling.

Infighting, internal investigations and code of conduct complaints have plagued councils up and down the country in recent years, coming to a head at Tauranga City Council in November when an independent review identified significant governance issues.

Mayor Tenby Powell resigned and called for commissioners to be appointed, and the council was sacked by Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta and replaced by four commissioners.

In Te Whanganui a Tara - Wellington, first-term Mayor Andy Foster last week announced an independent review to stop infighting over decisions around the fate of the library building.

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster.

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons asked the Auditor-General to investigate some of those decisions but this week John Ryan said it was not the Auditor-General's role to determine if a council had complied with its legal obligations. Ryan declined to provide the council with further governance training for now and said his office would await the outcome of the review.

Invercargill City Council narrowly avoided being replaced by a commissioner late last year and instead is being assisted by two external observers, after a governance review revealed long-standing Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt was struggling to fulfil significant parts of his role.

There have been ongoing and costly spats at Hutt City Council and last term at Horowhenua District Council.

Code of conduct complaints have been investigated at Waikato Regional Council, Waitomo District Council, which gagged itself with a restrictive media policy, at Taupō District Council, Rotorua Lakes District Council and Whangārei District Council, to name a few.

Commissioners have been sent into Rodney District Council in 2000, Environment Canterbury in 2010 and Kaipara District Council in 2012.

The latter council had proposed a 31 percent rate increase to cope with the costs of the Mangawhai Community Wastewater Scheme, before it was sacked. It was 2019 before the council returned to full self-management.

Hamilton City Council veteran councillor Dave Macpherson believes infrastructure costs and inexperience as well as personality clashes combine to cause governance ructions.

"People get elected on promises to make changes and they don't have the numbers [on council] to support it and they don't understand the bureaucracy that gets in the way of quick action."

Macpherson, who was first voted onto the council in 1998, said that lack of experience led to disagreements over costs such as the ones many councils were facing to upgrade ageing wastewater and sewage pipes.

In Waitomo, for example, the debt is $40 million due to upgraded water supply and roads, and the rates average $4000 a year.

It was on the back of a "no rates rise" campaign that Waitomo Mayor John Robertson ousted three-term mayor Brian Hanna - now Three Waters Steering Committee chairperson - only to find the council voted for an increase anyway.

"If you're spending all your money on putting in a new poo plant there's nothing left for the nice-to-haves promised during election campaigns," Macpherson said.

He said better planning by councils and more funding with interest-free loans from central government would go some way to addressing governance issues.

On Thursday, the Dominion Post revealed Mahuta proposed in May last year a $1 billion stimulus fund to help councils fix their crumbling water pipes, but it was slashed back by almost a quarter leaving councils much smaller amounts to grapple with the costs.

Dr. Andy Asquith, Massey University local government expert.

Andy Asquith Photo: Supplied

Dr Asquith said infrastructure costs had been a problem for decades and he took the issue of poor governance a step further, reiterating Kāpiti Coast District councillor Gwynn Compton's call late last year for a Royal Commission.

Dr Asquith, who has twice unsuccessfully stood for election in Palmerston North, said councils were custodians of assets worth in excess of $134bn.

He said a better calibre of candidate was crucial and there needed to be more training and development given to councillors, many of whom he said had a "gaping hole" in their skill set.

"Local government is not fit-for-purpose. The current system isn't working so something needs to be done."

Dr Asquith spent 10 years creating training solutions that were never used. He is now working on a trial project to teach teenagers about civics and citizenship, which he hopes will be launched in a high school this year.

He hopes education will not only strengthen the state of the country's governance, but also curb the general apathy of voters, whose numbers at the ballot box have been generally declining in recent decades.

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