Wellington councillors taken aback over independent review

8:32 pm on 24 February 2021

Wellington mayor Andy Foster appears to have ambushed at least some of his colleagues with his announcement of an independent review into council governance.

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster and deputy mayor Sarah Free.

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster and deputy mayor Sarah Free. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

At this morning council's meeting, mayor Andy Foster told councillors their very public spats, including those over the fate of the now closed central library building, had undermined public confidence.

While Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta had ruled out appointing a Crown Commissioner for now, she had clearly signalled she expected them to sort it out, he said.

"I want us all as elected representatives to seize this moment, dispel the current atmosphere of rancour and partisanship and move to a position where we can make better decisions and focus on what really matters."

Foster asked councillors to stand and show their support, which they did.

However, the show of unity did not last long, with several councillors taking to Twitter to complain about the lack of warning.

Councillor Iona Pannett, a Green Party member, told RNZ she would rather concentrate on the big issues facing the city, like ageing infrastructure and the housing shortage.

"I'm disappointed to see this review being sprung on us like this, there's been no discussion about it.

"Council is sovereign, in terms of the city - we do have the right to make decisions and we need to do our job.

"There have been some issues, but these can be resolved internally."

A councillor at the other end of the political spectrum, Sean Rush said they had their political differences - as evidenced in last week's fiery meeting on the draft long-term plan - but he personally thought the interest shown by the minister was "unnecessary".

Wellington City Councillor Sean Rush

Councillor Sean Rush Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"We went through a good robust debate last week with outcomes some people didn't like and the press have had some fun with that," Rush said.

"But it was still a good decision, well made, and we're all still friends," he said.

"It's a bit of an odd thing. I'm very happy to have the independent review but to suggest - as is the narrative - that we're dysfunctional is to suggest that democracy can't work."

Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons, a Labour Party member, said she wholeheartedly welcomed the review - especially if it removed the threat of a crown commissioner.

"I think there's deep problems across the council and we need to make sure that we're doing everything we can to make the important urgent decisions in the interests of the Wellington.

"But we can't see this further remove elected members and residents from decision-making. We need more local democracy, not less. So that's the basis on which I'm entering into this review."

Foster issued a statement saying he and the councillors would front a media conference this afternoon on the review, but several councillors said later they knew nothing about it.

Wellington city councillor Diane Calvert.

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

In the end, the mayor walked in flanked by three councillors: deputy mayor Sarah Free, Diane Calvert, who chairs the finance audit and risk committee and Northern Ward councillor Malcolm Sparrow, while councillor Simon Woolf perched awkwardly to the side and Pannett took a chair at the back of the room.

Foster batted away questions about whether councillors' non-attendance indicated he doesn't have their backing for the review.

"I asked them to stand, 15 people stood to say they support this. I think all of our councillors recognise we have some significant governance issues and we need to resolve that. This is a way of doing that."

When asked whether the announcement had been triggered by the minister's comments, Foster said they had actually been discussing an independent review for a couple of months.

"The minister's comments were timely but coincidental."

He rejected criticism the review was unnecessary and a waste of ratepayers' money. He said damaging leaks were undermining trust and the council could not function that way.

"So, we have confidential meetings and hey presto - the information is in the public arena, sometimes within minutes of councillors being given it.

"So that is not the way - if there's something you want to share with councillors, that is a way to completely destroy your ability to do that.

"And that is a fundamental issue for us as a council."

Divisions within the council were highlighted in a marathon meeting last Thursday over the long-term plan, at which many councillors accused the mayor of springing last-minute changes on them and rushing through a decision on the library.

Councillor Tamatha Paul accused Foster of mixing up governance and politics and said the review was unlikely to fix either.

Wellington City Councillor Tamatha Paul.

Councillor Tamatha Paul Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"There are some serious process issues and transparency issues and that was demonstrated in the meeting on Thursday in the fact so many councillors didn't actually know what they were agreeing to," Paul said.

"But there are also political issues which the mayor referenced in terms of that partisanship - but I think that also comes with the territory and he should probably be used to it with being on council for so long."

Politics were "muddying" things, but the underlying problem was poor process, she said.

Foster said the review could start as soon as the reviewer is appointed and the terms of reference decided - and he was keen for that to happen as soon as possible.

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