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Democracy Up-ended at Napier CC

One of the most remarkable aspects of New Zealand local government is the apparent inadequacy of the Local Government Act in establishing and maintaining councils as democratic institutions that serve their communities, as evidenced by the recent actions of the Napier City Council Chief Executive

The reason for this quite simply lies in the disconnect that allows chief executives to attain power far in excess of their public service equivalents. There is a cohort of often ill-qualified people who appear to have succeeded in confining access to, and circulation within these positions around the country,. They oversee the process of appointment, and salary setting, often by manipulating the process that is carried out in the main by temporary and inexperienced councillors .

I have closely observed this process over a number of years, and marvelled at the manner in which this group have been enabled to act unrestrained as the pivot between councillors and staff over which they preside. I have pointed out on several occasions that the sole determinant of Cchief executive appointment, performance and conditions is these council committees set up periodically to oversee this process. It is almost unheard of for councils to reject or alter the recommendations provided periodically by these committees. 

In turn, chief executives have the sole right to determine the salary levels of their underlings - generally in accordance with a rough formula that results in his/her ability to ensure fealty to his/her unfettered rule. The resulting salary scales within councils are generally far in excess of the norm within the communities they serve, and completely 'out of kilter' with other salary scales elsewhere in both private and public sectors for equivalent responsibility. This is further exacerbated by the lack of any effective oversight by any outside agency such as the Higher Salary's Commission, thatt sets the ollowances of elected members. 

Oversight by the Auditor General is demonstrably lacking in this and other areas as evidenced by its lack of action in regard to the TCDC Depreciation Reserves debacle. And the Minister is 'sitting this one out;' inaction that appears to be the modus operandi of this Government.

What has come to light recently in regard to Napier City Council, is the alleged action of its Chief Executive to have staff trawl Facebook pages to establish whether entries by sitting councillors could be construed as grounds for disciplinary action under that Council's extremely restrictive Code of Conduct. Under this Code, councillors are forbidden from publicly commenting on Council decisions - in this case, its decision to construct a new swimming complex. 

The Chief Executive's reported attempt to suppress democratic comment by Councillors who opposed this decision has been exposed, and severely criticised by academics and jurists alike. He has taken leave, along with the Mayor, in his case apparently to escape the furor that will almost certainly lead to an enquiry that could well result in his dismissal. 

I find this case troubling and relateable to our own situation here where their is a similar swimming complex decision to be taken in the not too distant future that may well involve opposition by a number of Councillors who may feel strongly about the appropriateness of Council funds being spent on a facility that may soon be subject to the effects of sea-level rise.

As far as I am aware , the TCDC Code of Conduct does not prevent Councillors explaining their position publicly, or bind them to silence if they disagree with decisions, other than those taken 'in confidence' - generally involving a legal matter, but this may well be a matter of interpretation. Whatever the case, the whole idea of a Chief Executive interfering in such a manner as in Napier is abhorant..

One of the first actions of the new Council will be to elect a Chief Executive Anointment and Performance Committee. This Committee will review the current Chief Executive's performance and determine whether to extend his contract, or call for new applications for the position. This Committee has comprised the Mayor, plus Clrs McLean and Fox for the last two terms, and the new Council needs to seriously consider whether to refresh its membership, should this group be re-elected to Council. 

Chief executives may have inordinate power, but they are in general on three-year contracts which gives some opportunity for councils to review performance, and if necessary 'move on.' The only problem is the limited range of applicants, and the fear of appointing people from outside who may have good qualifications and wide experience other than in the local government area.

Running councils is not 'rocket science,' after all. 




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