Questions Over Recent Actions by Christchurch Eastern Ward Councillors [2]

This article has stretched to a second post because of additional governance issues raised in ongoing online conversations in respect of this matter. The main protagonist being a strong supporter of the 2 Councillors concerned, whereas our position is to oppose them. The suggestion being as articulated in the first article, some Councillors believe that council staff have their own agenda and are intent on pushing this through irrespective of the direction that Councillors give to them.

The key issue in this situation is that we have an organisation – the Christchurch City Council – that is an operational body that also has elected members in a governance role, and the problem is that the civil functions of the organisation must be carried out in a non-political way. This precludes Councillors from being involved in operational matters or giving operational oversight to the work of Council staff. This distinction is essential in order to avoid politicising the work of the organisation, which has to be focused on achieving outcomes that are focused on lawful intentions completely independently of political ones.

In our experience, dealing with a range of people from across the political spectrum, those that complain the most about staff having their own agenda are those who are most strongly focused on serving their own political agenda – they tend to be linked to national political movements, have strongly ideological viewpoints, or perhaps are connected with major business or activist interests in the City, for example. Giving an example – Mike Yardley has been a trenchant critic of the Council through many of his columns this year – he is essentially using his platform to push National Party ideology in relation to local governance – he has in relation to this issue backed the two Councillors and used quite strong language attacking Council staff in this instance. Yardley should be required to register as a political promoter and broadcast an authorisation statement with each such message, especially during the current election campaign. No doubt we are going to see another column from him shortly defending the two Councillors further.

What must be remembered is when Councillors are, firstly, overstepping the boundaries of elected office, and secondly, pushing their political barrow through the auspices of elected office, that there is strong potential for abuse of process. We have long been strongly of the view that local government democracy is quite weak with much lesser checks and balances than central government and it tends to favour those with political agendas who have the means to push them through. For example one of the things that was highlighted as a result of the Christchurch earthquake was that councils such as CCC had flouted requirements of the Building Act related to development of land with natural hazards, and that the same Act at the time did not mandate any policy relating to the hazards of unstrengthened heritage buildings. There is very clear obvious motivation for Councillors of a particular political ideology to oppose staff’s own personal affiliations and views insofar as these may influence their actions whilst holding managerial roles within the Council. Even if a council has a plan and tries to follow it, developers can threaten legal action to get what they want and in a lot of cases this results in a backdown. Or if a proposal receives significant opposition from a community, it can be moved into some other community where there is less resistance. This last issue is of particular concern where it relates to the conflict between the interests of property owners and occupiers, this distinction becoming ever more important as the proportion of people who are renting rather than owning property becoming ever greater. For example, if an area starts to gentrify, it will be welcomed by owners because of an upward impact on property values; but occupiers who are charged higher rentals and potentially displaced from the area will see a negative impact. As we may have said earlier in this article and certainly in other posts, territorial authorities overwhelmingly favour the interests of property owners over those of occupiers.

Given these factors and the potential for abuse of process, we choose to re-emphasise that we believe the Council has followed the correct course of action in censuring the two Councillors who were involved in this activity. We have little agreement with the various parties that are supporting the Councillors, because they are mostly from groups who fail to understand that Councils have been delegated functions by central government to perform, and that these do involve a level of enforcement. The Council cops a lot of political abuse from these people who are mostly very vocal right wingers who despise the regulatory requirements that they have to acknowledge and blame the Council when these regulations are in place to ensure there is a reasonably level handed response and that people are all treated the same way.