Doesn’t it seem like all the responsible folks at our local councils deserted Hawke’s Bay and put Homer Simpson in charge? Or Dilbert? Are we undergoing some kind of governance meltdown? The headlines and events lately have been disquieting, to say the least. Enough, one would think, to make elected leaders run for cover.

• Opera House fix to cost $21 million  or more, if it’s fixable.

• Speed limits flip-flopping.

• HB Museum and Art Gallery requires a $500,000 band aid.

• CHB poo pond clean-up scheme, eight years in the making, fails to do the job; HBRC wrings its hands.

• Fish catches depleting in Hawke Bay (although MPI hasn’t caught up with this).

• Cows still lounging (and worse) in the Tukituki, with toxic algae warnings making matters worse.

• Bottled aquifer water to be sold abroad, while Heretaunga growers face irrigation bans. Which council(s) allowed that?

 • Ahuriri Estuary pollution getting worse. Who’s letting that happen?

• Regional Council suing Napier City Council over a leaky building, and HBRC battling HDC in the Environment Court over land use consents. Only lawyers win.

• The future of Horse of the Year jeopardized by its own board.

• $20+ million plowed into a dam of dubious merit, with spending continuing at $300k per month.

• Five councils soon each launching their next long term plans, with no synchronicity or collaboration.

The list could go on … that’s just the picture as I write in late February. But your head is probably already throbbing.

Thank God we’ve had Art Deco week and cricket to distract us from the real world! And our wines are still winning prestigious awards. But don’t images of the Titanic’s ‘and the band played on’, or Nero fiddling, come to mind?

So, what’s wrong with this picture? How does all this dysfunction come about?

I offer five possibilities.

First, inevitably, s**t happens.

Take the Opera House. It would appear that the Hastings Council acted with due diligence when it refurbished the Opera House. Then along came a Christchurch earthquake and more stringent building standards, and eventually a steep price tag on coming up to snuff. No one at fault here … a bad roll of the dice for Hastings ratepayers, councillors and the mayor.

Contrast that with Hastings dog pound debacle, where the council deservedly came under fire for malfeasance of its own doing. Or compare the Opera House situation to the fiasco at HB Museum and Art Gallery, where lack of proper Napier City Council oversight (where was Finance chairman Bill Dalton?) led to poor design decisions, a storage dilemma and inflated visitor projections that are now costing Napier ratepayers plenty … over $678,000 this year alone.

Then there’s the Regional Council’s leaky roof, costing $2 million to repair, with lawyers for HBRC and NCC fighting over financial culpability.

Second, nobody’s paying attention.

“Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve,” said George Bernard Shaw.

Only 44% of Hawke’s Bay eligible voters even bothered to vote in local body elections in 2013. So what tiny percentage of the body politic might possibly be paying attention in any meaningful way to the week in, week out travails of our councils?

People wonder why cows still poop in the Tukituki

Pitifully few, if measured by attendance at council meetings, making of submissions, or participation in other consultation opportunities.

As an advocate and now a councillor, I’ve been on both sides of this table. At times thumping the table, demanding more informed and timely input into decisions. And at other times, scratching my head with staff and fellow councillors regarding what more could be done to encourage public feedback.

A more energetic local media, with more critical and informed reporters, might be expected to bring key issues before the public in a way that framed the choices in a useful and timely way. And to play a watchdog role. Instead of being spoon fed by councils’ communications staff.

But local media in Hawke’s Bay will never be adequately resourced to do this job, and reporter turnover compounds the problem. There’s no substitute for watching the ‘game’ for a few years to really understand the dynamics of issues and where the bodies are buried.

In Hawke’s Bay, of reporters normally covering councils, only Marty Sharpe of the DomPost and Diane Joyce of the local Fairfax weeklies have the ‘seniority’ and critical eye to get at what’s actually going on (and Diane’s now gone to the ‘dark side’ as communications chief for the Hastings Council!).

And what is undeniable is that when councils believe no one is watching, that’s when the mischief really begins.

 Third, lack of council transparency.

Of course, the rejoinder to my second point is that councils are very difficult to penetrate and scrutinize, sometimes because of the inherently protective DNA of all bureaucracies, but very often because of deliberate obfuscation by elected councillors and council staffs alike.

So citizens legitimately complain that too little information is available, consultation is a sham, and too much happens behind closed doors. As a councillor, I’ve attended six workshops so far on the HBRC’s next long term plan; sometime in April, you readers will get to look at it. Of course we don’t make decisions in those private meetings (passing resolutions would be illegal); instead, we give guidance to the staff.

My experience as a councillor has strongly reinforced one conclusion: the last thing most councillors want is to be watched, interrogated, challenged. Life is complicated enough without an audience. And this is even more true of council staffs, who by archaic rules are insulated even from their own councillors.

And so – with few ‘outsiders’ watching or equipped to challenge – the conditions are ripe for councillors and staff to act as though the show belongs entirely to them.

Councillors tell themselves that, hearing no noise, they can do as they please in their various fiefdoms. ‘Malcontents’ – be they members of the public or fellow councillors – be damned.

And council staffs – especially senior managers who have ‘seen it all before’ and have longer shelf-lives than most councillors – are highly skilled at managing information, controlling agendas, and steering the ship in their preferred directions. An imbalance of capacity made worse by the part-time nature of most councillors.

Under these circumstances, the worried ratepayer doesn’t stand a chance. Indeed, even a persistent and determined councillor can’t penetrate the walls, especially if one is viewed by staff as on the ‘minority’ side of any given issue.

Fourth, convoluted, disjointed structure.

My soul bared, I am an advocate of amalgamation. Conflicting jurisdictions, authorities, agendas and even vendettas of competing councils exacerbate most of the issues and poor outcomes on my opening list.

While many advocates of amalgamation cite savings and less duplication – which the ratepayer has every right to expect – my own reasons go more to getting better policy outcomes and sharper accountability.

HBRC building gets a major repair, while councils fight over who foots the bill

Much inter-council warfare is internal, out of public sight … what Americans call ‘inside baseball’. Occasionally the conflict erupts into public view, as councils fight over money, jockey for public accolades, or feel a need to shift blame.

But while the in-fighting saps energy, money and time within the councils (who have no limits on the time, money and energy they can waste), it also saps the resources of the groups and individuals in the community who try to engage with council decision-makers to produce better outcomes.

That list I started with … it will only get longer and longer as we paddle along with five councils pointed in their own directions.

Fifth, old blood.

That said, amalgamation is not a ‘cure-all’. As many say, why re-arrange the deck chairs simply to find them occupied again by the same folks who’ve delivered today’s state of affairs?

Considering the list of issues above, one’s first impulse, understandably, might be to jettison the crews of those ships. However, that’s a little too simplistic. Poor structure and process can stack the deck impossibly, thwarting even the best-intentioned and most capable elected officials. Reorganization is an essential part of the solution for moving Hawke’s Bay forward.

But we must face up to ‘personnel’ change as well – whether we are fortunate enough to amalgamate or not. As I’ve written before, Hawke’s Bay is reclining, if not declining, under the ‘steady hands’ of our political veterans – some serving five, six, even seven terms.

With too much time in office, elected officials have too much baggage, too many past policies to defend, too stale ideas, too much feeling of entitlement, too much commitment to the status quo, and too much sense of ‘we know best’.

Consequently, I support term limits for elected officials. Three terms or almost ten years in the same office is plenty of time to make a public service contribution, without becoming addicted to the ratepayers’ teat. After that, a smart community can surely find other ways to capitalize upon whatever further public service inclinations and talents these veterans might have.

Local government terms are set by legislation, so for all practical purposes, any move in this direction will need to come at the voluntary commitment of future candidates, who would hopefully be rewarded by voters for their modest aspirations!

So there’s no single antidote to the spate of malfunctions I listed at the outset. Paying more attention … demanding more transparency … amalgamation … more fresh blood – each of these is needed.

The first two require our persistent commitment. Fresh blood awaits 2016. Amalgamation, however, is at our doorstep. That campaign is underway … to the consternation of ratepayers who believe councils should say nothing on the matter.

As you read this, the Local Government Commission should have completed its random survey of Bay-wide voter interest in reorganization. And assuming it is satisfied with the level of interest it finds, it will issue a final reorganization plan. That plan is sure to be put to a public referendum.

At that point, democracy will ensure that we get what we deserve!

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