20 Apr 2021

Wellington Mayor proposes council restructure following Winder review

6:47 am on 20 April 2021

A big structural overhaul of Wellington City Council has been proposed by the Mayor.

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster.

Mayor Andy Foster wants to replace the existing portfolio structure with a committee structure. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

It comes after a review found poor governance, missing leadership, and behaviour which undermined public trust and confidence.

The review was authored by Peter Winder, the man who led the review into the "dysfunctional" Tauranga City Council, which subsequently led to the appointment of a Commissioner.

In response to the 13 recommendations made by Winder, Mayor Andy Foster has proposed replacing the existing portfolio structure with a committee structure instead.

But some councillors feel the change has been rushed, with the review only presented to them last Wednesday and that the Mayor has stacked the committees along partisan lines.

What problems does the review present?

The review was commissioned by Mayor Andy Foster in February.

"The review was launched because there were fairly widely acknowledged issues with governance, and governance practices," explained Foster.

"I wanted to have somebody independent have a look at those and give us some recommendations about a way forwards, so that we can restore confidence in Council's processes and decision-making."

In his review, Peter Winder spoke to a number of councillors, council officials, staff at council-run organisations, as well as some elected members from other councils across the region.

It accepted the council was currently going through a period of immense pressure in terms of its tightening finances, its ageing infrastructure, its transport challenges, its housing shortages, a number of social issues, not to mention the Covid-19 pandemic.

But it added that those significant problems were being heightened by the fact that, while there was consensus about the issues facing the capital, there is a "lack of an agreed vision to pull together and crystallise what the Council is trying to achieve".

Furthermore, Winder said the political make-up of the council, where there is no clear governing majority, "makes decision-making appear noisy, difficult, and from the outside unpredictable".

The review argued the portfolio structure "is a significant contributor to the governance difficulties that exist".

That's because while each councillor has their own portfolio, nearly all decisions are funnelled through one committee, which meets twice weekly.

Winder said the practice "is a very inefficient use of both Councillor and executive time", as well as contribution to "a 'them' and 'us' view", breeding division.

It concluded despite these difficulties decisions are still being made. There was no evidence of bullying, only "robust disagreements"; no evidence of systemic or widespread leaks; and unlike in Tauranga, no need for Ministerial intervention.

But Winder did identify that the vigourous debate and behaviour was undermining public trust and confidence; that poor governance practice was evident; and that the Mayor needed to do considerably more to act as a "champion and chief advocate" for the city.

In all, Councillor Simon Woolf thought they got off lightly.

"I thought that we were very lucky.

"Lucky as in that there have been a lot of disjoints, and acrimony, miscommunications, leaks, handovers, and certainly breaches of trust and confidence between councillors.

"Peter [Winder]'s report is fullsome, but it's also generous: it's our last chance."

Recommendations being swiftly implemented

The thirteen recommendations are aimed at improving council governance, ensuring more consensus when making decisions, and restoring trust.

They include:

- the establishment of a council vision

- move away from portfolio and adopt a structure of committees

- support the Mayor to effectively advocate for Wellington

Foster has wasted no time, today announcing a major shake-up of the council structure.

Out the door are portfolios, incoming is a committee structure, where nine committees will meet once every four weeks.

Councillor Diane Calvert, said this would improve processes.

"This way the work is divided up a bit better to make sure we are really focussed on particular areas when we come together to meet and debate various matters," she said.

He has also detailed who will be appointed the Chair and Deputy Chair of each committee.

Woolf, appointed deputy chairperson of the Finance and Performance Committee, agreed portfolios were tricky.

"It's very hard for first-term councillors coming in, to be handed a portfolio without the institutional historical knowledge.

"I know in my first term, I was given community engagement, and I struggled with it. There was no job specification for it, there was budget, there was no cohesive approach on being able to handle it."

The review recommended that the Mayor use the positions of chairperson and deputy chairperson to "build collaboration and consensus".

Foster said, to the best of his ability, he had done this.

"I very much want to get the right people in the right places, the right skills, the right attitudes, the right attributes.

"It'd be fair to say not everybody's every going to be happy in any of these allocation processes - they never are, that's just the way of it.

"But I've tried to keep it balanced, and get the right people in the right places."

No facilitation raising eyebrows

But Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons disagreed with that assessment.

"The thrust of the Winder review was really about saying, in that chair and deputy chair role, there should be a mix of political values, so that staff can work to decisions that are likely to be supported by the majority.

"Unfortunately, what the Mayor's done, is really concentrated different political views in those leadership roles, in a way that is unlikely to lead to that cohesion."

Winder also recommended the Council use a "facilitated process so that it can deliberately use the appointments to help to build an inclusive, all of Council, approach."

That had not been followed through by Foster.

"The recommendations in the report were very clear that it would be helpful to use a facilitator to establish that process, so better collaboration can happen.

"We've tried to suggest that maybe it would be good to slow it down and call in a facilitator.

"I emailed the Mayor earlier today saying I think it would be good to slow it down, I don't think people are onboard with this. I've had no response."

The new structure will be finalised in a committee meeting this Thursday.