As local body elections loom in September/October, concerns are being expressed that councillors are insufficiently resourced to effectively represent their constituents.
We like to think that councillors are working hard to deliver great outcomes for their constituents, but is that an impossible expectation? Are our councillors empowered to make quality decisions - or to simply be box-tickers? In at least some councils it appears they are expected to act as compliant puppets, providing a protective layer for those really pulling the strings in council.
In keeping with the iconic, satirical programme “Yes, Minister,” reportedly council officers dump piles of complicated reports on the desks or in the inboxes of our representatives, directly prior to important meetings. These councillors (mere mortals) are then required to wade through it all, absorb, understand and analyse technical and legal information, before reaching conclusions and making quality decisions.
The sheer quantity, diversity and complexity of reports can be challenging (especially in the consolidated Auckland Super City). And when only one policy is promoted by council officers, how are councillors supposed to know whether there might be better options available that have been eliminated for not fitting ideological imperatives? Looking around our city and listening to the stories of what goes on in Auckland Council, there’s no doubt that political and social engineering requirements underlie many projects and policies.
Our expectation is that our councillors have the ability, the resources and fire in their bellies to challenge the recommendations of the supposed experts within council, or the ideologues on every committee.
If you think this isn’t an issue, think again. Observers have cited personal attacks, put downs, interruptions, and general harassment of councillors by chairpersons and other committee members when daring to query what’s being promoted in committee or council meetings.
In a glaring example, the co-chairs of the Hauraki Gulf Forum recently tried to bully and muzzle Forum member and ratepayers’ representative, Auckland Councillor John Watson, when he called for a public debate about issues that directly affected his constituents. Watson shared his concerns, along with a Gulf Users Group advertisement, identifying the five councillors who failed to seek a mandate from their ratepayers and ignored the concerns of 15,000 or more citizens who had petitioned or emailed Forum members.
These five voted with the tangata whenua members on the Forum to overwhelm the votes of the majority of publicly elected Forum members, in the decision to recommend to Government a new 50:50 co-governance body between mana whenua and ‘others’ (sic) to take control of the Hauraki Gulf Forum. This comes on top of an associated proposal to take 21 of Auckland's 28 regional parks into the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, a move that would also place these public 'jewels in the crown' under the influence of the proposed co-governance entity.
As the harassment continued, Watson obtained legal advice to enable him to fight back, but as there was no council support, this had to be funded privately.
Surely, it’s time to accept that councillors are only human and need some personally selected, independent (but Council–paid) resources to help balance the interests of constituents against the domineering forces of any ideologically-driven bureaucrats.
Yes, this would mean more expense for long-suffering ratepayers. But, if we had well-supported councillors, they may have a show of cutting back the ridiculous sums wasted on non-essential hobby horses and favoured identity groups (such as the millions earmarked to be spent on “decolonising” healthy, exotic trees from Auckland’s Maunga).
We certainly don’t need councillors who will just bank their pay and go with the flow. If that became the norm, I suggest it would be far more advantageous to ratepayers to revert to the old days of district councils and volunteer councillors with proven business skills!
Ratepayers need councillors who will fight for us. We need them to ensure that anyone receiving public funds is accountable and every action is challengeable. To do so, Councillors need to be adequately resourced - they must be given the means to be able to work for ratepayers in delivering cities, towns and regions that really are liveable, cost-efficient and democratic.
Democracy Action thanks Fiona Mackenzie for her commentary