9 Jun 2022

What's behind Christchurch City Council's popularity slump?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 9 June 2022

Christchurch City Council's popularity has slumped as it tries to grapple with a confluence of unfortunate events: the stadium cost blowout, the Bromley stench and an exodus of council staff.

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Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

City councils, as a rule, don't rank too highly in popularity contests.  

Auckland Council has a 23 percent satisfaction rating. Wellington City Council, 17 percent. 

Back in 2007, though, Christchurch City Council bucked that trend, sitting pretty with nearly four in five residents approving of how the council was functioning. 

Fifteen years later, though, a medley of misfortune has turned that on its head. 

Only 42 percent of more than 7000 residents surveyed approved of the job the council was doing. 

It's also bleeding staff: more than 400 council employees - nearly a fifth of its workforce - have left the organisation over the past year.  

It's paying out compensation to residents affected by a wastewater treatment plant fire which, six months on, hasn't been properly dealt with, and still leaves a pungent smell in the air. 

And, of course, there's the stadium - the projected cost of which has now spiralled to more than $650 million. 

"There is a perfect storm with the city council in Christchurch at the moment," says Newsroom's South Island correspondent David Williams. 

"A number of really big things are coming to a head." 

Williams has written about confluence of unfortunate events which has befallen the council in recent years and what it's doing to try and turn it around. 

Of course, not all these are the council's fault: the spiralling cost of the stadium predates the tenures of both the current mayor and chief executive. And a city council can only do so much about the soaring cost of building materials and labour.  

The council's chief executive, Dawn Baxendale, has come under scrutiny, Williams says, with some objecting to a perceived heavy-handedness. 

But he says it's undeniable that Baxendale had some tough decisions to make when she came on board in 2019, some of which were destined to be unpopular.   

Ultimately, Williams says, the council's credibility rests on doing a better job, in both words and actions. 

"When you think about something like the wastewater treatment plant fire, they need to be better about explaining what's going on. 

"But also, they need to be sure that they're moving as quickly as possible." 

Williams says the mayor apologised, but seemed to suggest she thought things were happening, but they weren't.  

"Why did that happen? It's all very easy in hindsight, but why did it get to that point? Why were we so many months after the fire, with the stench rolling across the city, that someone needed to ask what was being done?" Williams says. 

"You have big problems like this, you make mistakes...and you fix the way you deal with things. 

"If that's not a lesson they learned, that's a council that's going to go down in popularity, unfortunately." 

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