I attend heaps of Council meetings – Hastings, Napier, and Regional … probably more than any individual in Hawke’s Bay. It’s part of my “job” as editor of BayBuzz. I’ve formed some definite impressions of the differing styles and modes of operation of these august bodies. By now you probably have a pretty good sense of my pet peeves and biases.

Such as …

Nothing of any consequence whatsoever ever happens at a Napier City Council meeting. The only reason to go to a NCC meeting is to see if anyone has died. Decisions regarding the future of Napier that are truly important are made somewhere else … I think at Mayor Barbara Arnott’s kitchen table.

Perhaps this is entirely fitting. Mayor Arnott was elected with 84% of the vote … the rest of the Councillors are just window dressing. For Napier ratepayers, “amalgamation” should just be a matter of eliminating the royal court. OK, Barbara can’t attend every civic function, so maybe you need a Vice Mayor too.

Just about everyone in Napier seems quite content with this queenly governance, as you will see below from our latest BayBuzz survey.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the Hastings District Council. In its chamber, issues large and small are debated, which isn’t to say most outcomes aren’t pre-determined … if not by prior private “workshops” then by the reality that, at best, only five or six Councillors at any time (out of fourteen) are inclined to swim against the tide.

But at least one can usually expect something noteworthy to happen. You never know what piece of minutia might confound the machinery of Hastings government. As I often note, Iron Rule #1 in Hastings is that debate is inversely proportionate to the seriousness of the subject matter. Councillors can intently deliberate for a half-hour or more over the length of parking limits for a half dozen carparks, with all Councillors voicing an opinion, then adopt an industrial development policy in mere moments, with nary a question.

The Regional Council lies somewhere in between. Unlike Napier, important issues indeed come to the table for debate. Unlike Hastings, there is no “voting block” bigger than two (and that changes minute by minute) to help sharpen the issues and choices under review in any systematic way. The result is an entertaining degree of unpredictability and inconsistency.

Yes, most of the Councillors have a pet theme – Gilbertson: “Let’s give our hoard of money back to the ratepayers.” McGregor: “I’m sick of seeing farmers getting a bad rap.” Remmerswaal: “What about sustainability?” Scott and von Dadelszen: “Point of order, Mr Chairman.” But this is not the stuff of public affairs that would inspire most ratepayers.

I’m sharing my impressions of the Councils as a preface to reporting on our latest Council Report Card survey. The results of the survey are equally impressionistic and unscientific. Some of you responded to the printed survey in last month’s BayBuzz Digest (distributed randomly to 10,000 homes); some took the survey online (arguably an audience more populated with the Baybuzz “faithful”). Respondents rated either Hastings or Napier as their local Council; all respondents rated the Regional Council.

One can always argue over whether “malcontents” are more likely to offer their opinions than “devotees” of the current regimes. That said, there is a very clear pattern to our Report Card, and one that mirrors all the encounters and feedback I have or receive on literally a daily basis wearing my BayBuzz hat.

The bottomline: People are very upset about the direction of the Hastings Council … quite satisfied with the direction of the Napier Council … and the Regional Council falls somewhere in between.

For example, asked about their Council’s overall performance, 62% of Hastings respondents said “I’m not satisfied, it’s time for a change” … compared to 33% of Napier respondents rating NCC and 40% of all respondents rating the Regional Council.

There’s other bad news for the Hastings Council. Fully 78% of Hastings respondents agree with the statement that rates and debt “increases have been excessive and Council is trying to do too many things” … compared to only 29% of Napier respondents saying that about their Council.

It seems to me that Mayor Yule and Hastings Councillors have two choices. One, they can dismiss the BayBuzz survey as unrepresentative, biased, appealing to whingers, a worst-case scenario, and so forth. They can console themselves by seeking reassurance from their close friends and associates, who will confirm that indeed they’re doing a dandy job … not to worry.

Or two, they can listen to the early warning signs and take some actions that indicate they care about the mood and priorities of their constituents … starting with a different approach to transparency and fiscal accountability.

Tom Belford

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