Democracy … from two Greek words meaning “people” and “rule”. Separately these words are benign enough. But put them together and watch out!

Democracy is playing out in amusing ways in each of our local councils these days.

In Hastings on Wednesday, the Council will spend hours at a session devoted entirely to listening to submitters discuss the dog control by-laws. An astonishing amount of time and talent will be devoted to whether dogs should be on leashes!

And, you can be sure, each and every Councillor will have heaps to say about the matter … including those who usually have nothing at all to say about budget overruns, key issues involving hearings on private plan changes, and other substantial matters. It’s easier to have an opinion about the little stuff.

Now this isn’t to say that dog controls are inconsequential. After all, 832 submissions were filed by citizens on the matter, so they must be important. This compares to 144 formal submissions on the Council’s ten-year plan, plus 474 informal “ballots” on the plan (all one had to do was tear it off and mail it back, for god’s sake) … where of course only about a BILLION dollars over ten years is at stake.

Now to be clear, of the 832 dog submissions, 735 were “amalgamated” submissions filed by four parties (e.g., in one case, 639 people signed onto one submission). Still, this is impressive howling by the citizenry.

I know all politics is local (so says a famous American national politician), but really! Is this how most ratepayers want to see the Mayor, 14 Councillors and a gaggle of senior staff spend their day?

Who says democracy is going to the dogs in Hastings?!

At the very same time, over at the Regional Council, our Councillors will be debating the proper relationship between elected Councillors and the staff. This is such a vexing issue that a memo has been written about the subject (here it is, for you stalwart democrats).

Lest you have any misconceptions that your elected officials are in charge, BayBuzz is here to correct you. Make no mistake … according to the “protocols,” Councillors are not supposed to have much contact with staff. Basically, your average run-of-the-mill Councillor needs a permission slip to engage a staffer.

So if you thought you actually elected Councillors to keep a close eye and tight rein on your behalf on wayward bureaucracies (i.e., paid public servants), as is your right in most representative democracies, you’re wrong. There’s to be no tapping on the shoulder of a staffer and saying: “Why did you do that, you lunkhead?!”

Democracy doesn’t convey such privileges to neutered elected officials in our local bodies.

And then, speaking of neutering, there’s democracy in Napier.

In Napier, there’s a storm a-brewin over ward representation. Now, some would argue that the whole argument is irrelevant so long as Mayor Arnott is in office, for the mere reason that under this benevolent dictator the entire Council is simply a Royal Court in attendance.

I used to think of Mayor Arnott as Il Duce, but now I’m thinking she’s more like Catherine the Great, “Empress and Autocrat of All the Russias,” who ruled Russia for 34 years (only a few terms away for Empress Barbara) in the 18th century, Consider this profile from Wikipedia:

“Under her direct auspices the Russian Empire expanded, improved its administration, and continued to modernize. Catherine’s rule re-vitalised Russia, which grew ever stronger and became recognized as one of the great powers of Europe. Her successes in complex foreign policy and her sometimes brutal reprisals in the wake of rebellion (most notably Pugachev’s Rebellion) complemented her hectic private life.”

Some interesting parallels there. Add to this that she was big into the arts — her private collection became the basis of The Hermitage. And she had a joined-at-the-(ahem) hip advisor, Potemkin (think CEO Neil Taylor without the sex part).

And there you have her — Napier’s modern day Catherine II.

Where was I? Oh yes, wards. Half of Napier’s Councillors are supposed to represent wards … localised constituencies where voters might actually get to know who they elected, so as to seek their occasional help and hold them accountable. You know … democracy.

But Mayor Arnott hates wards. Bill Dalton hates wards. Undoubtedly most other Royal Courtiers hate wards. They’ve done their best to neuter them since some were imposed after citizen demand. Now there are rumblings that the Royal Court wants to do away with the pestilence of wards and elect all councillors at-large.

To me, electing even some Councillors on an “at-large” basis diffuses accountability and should be abandoned. If a voter has elected “everyone” en masse, he/she has no one individual to hold responsible. The “Council” is a faceless blob. Without “head-to-head” competition for Council seats at the ward level, the performance of individual Councillors goes essentially unchallenged. Differences in candidates’ abilities, accomplishments and agendas are totally blurred, if not rendered meaningless. And important priorities and needs that differ from ward to ward remain unarticulated and un-championed.

Wards would bring Napier closer to democracy and — because of this — they are threatening to the Royal Court.

So there you have it … how democracy plays out in our local bodies. Democracy … you gotta luv it!

Tom Belford

P.S. Vote here! Who is Mayor Arnott more like: Il Duce or Catherine the Great?

P.P.S. Don’t even get me started on democracy and the District Health Board … it’s run by a “Sir” after all!

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  1. It's a strange new country, Tom. The U.S.comes in for a lot of criticism, but the part of it I knew in New England had robustly democratic governing bodies, not to mention an outspoken citizenry.

  2. [Edited] I say to hell with Madam and Bill Dalton and "ladies in waiting" for not wanting a bar of the part "Ward" system of representation. It was so patently obvious that, not to upset and make Madam even more mad, the compliant Crs Dave Pipe and Mark Herbert were also dead against Wards. However, after the Electoral Authority had ruled, and come election time with no where else to go, both Pipe and Herbert hypocritically did a complete "U" Turn and stood in a Ward. Clearly … both never ever had their hearts in representing Wards in the first place! But not one of them have ever made the effort to organise 1 single Ward meeting for their iratepayer constituents to have their say. No different to taking money by false pretences – absolutely downright disgraceful! .

    Surely they can see that Ward representation on Council can only ever be as good as those that represent it. End of story. Let's only hope there will be a strident working towards making a change for the "better" on those particular Wards next year.

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