During the upcoming campaigns, candidates will put forward all sorts of proposals aimed at assuring voters that we will get more efficient and responsive local government … if only they get the levers of control.

Some will associate themselves with ambitious schemes like amalgamation; others will insist that more determined cooperation and “shared services” among councils will suffice; still others might focus on improving the public participation in council decision-making. All worthy of debate.

Most likely, there’s not a single Hawke’s Bay voter who doesn’t believe in their gut that local body effectiveness and accountability can and should be improved. So what are the possibilities, and what should voters be listening for as candidates promise they will raise the bar?

Consider these possibilities.

More effective structure

The most ambitious “reform” proposal on the table is “amalgamation” … whatever that means. Some have in mind a unitary authority that might encompass the Regional Council as well as the region’s four territorial bodies – Hastings, Napier, Wairoa and CHB. Some would consider merging only the territorial bodies, on the basis that the Regional Council has certain responsibilities – like protecting the environment – that warrant it standing apart as a “check” on its territorial cousins. And, if you live in Napier, “amalgamation” might signify nothing more than getting in bed with odious Hastings!

Whatever flavour of amalgamation proponents espouse, the case rests on claims that include cost-savings; consistency of operating policies and practices (from building codes to dog control); simplification of doing business with local government (as contractors, ratepayers, etc.); more effective planning and outcomes (in areas like infrastructure, tourism promotion, economic development and settlement patterns); and more potent advocacy to central government.

Different candidates will emphasize different benefits. For example, some expect substantial cost savings; others expect virtually none.

And some candidates – skeptical of amalgamation – will argue that such benefits can be achieved by “evolution not revolution.” You will hear these candidates talk about “shared services” like rubbish removal, rates collection, computer systems and so on.

They claim that by simply focusing in a systematic manner on specific areas of opportunity, runs can be put on the board without the turmoil of wholesale reorganization and the loss of local community identity they associate with amalgamation. It’s simply a matter of applying common sense and political will, they say.

Voters need to hear and weigh all these arguments from all the candidates (all have a stake in this one) and decide which path you would like to see taken over the next three years. Our current councils have set aside funds for “independent” examination next year of the pros and cons of amalgamation. The newly-elected councils will shape the direction this inquiry takes or, depending upon who is elected, drop the proposal as dead in the water. You get to decide!

Holding companies

Another key “structural” issue involves how our councils manage key public assets – from sports and cultural facilities, to the port and airport, to real estate, water storage and forestry investments.

Different models are presently used or proposed by our local councils – separate trusts (like the regional sports park), property development companies (HDC has recently created one), corporate trusts (like the HB Opera House), limited liability corporations (like the Port), and holding companies (as the Regional Council proposes for some of its “strategic assets” like the Port).

The most common argument used to justify these entities is the desirability of involving pertinent business and commercial talent or broader community representation in strategy development and oversight of such public enterprises. Typically the question posed is: “What does your typical councillor know about running a port, or marketing a sports or entertainment facility?”

Sometimes too, financial advantages, including tax benefits and protecting councils from liability, are claimed for these structures.

Critics, on the other hand, see these vehicles as further distancing the public (and even councillors) from participation in and adequate control over decision-making for entities that are managing valuable public assets. Some of the entities (like the HB Opera House, Hastings’ property development company) include both elected councillors and appointed members on their boards; others (like the Port) have only appointed directors.

And they can each still generate losses that ultimately come back to the “parent” council’s balance sheet, requiring ratepayer funding.

Given that the performance of some of the region’s most prominent assets is now – or is proposed to be – in the hands of such entities, voters should become more familiar with their workings, and develop a point of view about when and if they are desirable, and what public accountability measures need to be in place.

Regional council candidates especially should be questioned about HBRC’s proposed holding company – do they support or oppose it and why? And if they do support it, how do they see accountability to the Council (and ratepayers) being safeguarded?

More transparent process

Candidates routinely promise that, if elected, they will improve public participation in councils’ decision-making. Carrying no downside, it’s a “throw-away” pledge easily made, but as easily forgotten. Rarely does a candidate indicate with any specificity precisely what they would change to provide more transparency and accountability, staff responsiveness, or meaningful engagement with the public.

Here are some ideas you might use to prod candidates on this point. Ask if they would commit to any of the following:

Fewer public-excluded sessions and “workshops” – these can be sessions where the real debates occur and deals get made. When so much is done behind closed doors, public consultation becomes perfunctory and actions later taken in public session receive only cursory and sanitized open discussion.

More recorded votes – even after the rare strenuous debate on an important issue, it is uncommon for councillors to call for a recorded vote. There seems to be a tacit agreement that no footprints should be left behind.

More productive and timely public consultation – if a council requires a legal opinion to defend its claim that it has appropriately consulted on a major issue (as the Regional Council recently argued for its Holding Company proposal), then it’s a safe bet that they haven’t honoured the spirit of public consultation!

Generally, councils should augment the broad and formal submission process on key issues with the involvement of targeted stakeholder groups and constituencies, genuine survey research, and “plain English” presentation and framing of choices.

Additionally, council hearings on submissions could be held in the evening (as should at least some council meetings). And matters of regional significance (e.g., budget support for sport facilities or arts & culture) or matters where policy consistency would be helpful (e.g., dog control, liquor by-laws) could be considered at joint meetings of the pertinent councils.

And what about “open mike” windows at council meetings, where members of the public, as a matter of right, would have limited time to put issues before their elected representatives on a routine basis?

Better informed councillors – As someone who attends many, many council meetings – Hastings, Napier, Regional – I am surprised time and again that councils are so ignorant about how their opposite numbers are approaching the same issues … or dealing with matters that could become contentious between them.

Short of amalgamation, Councillors could be assigned to “audit” relevant meetings of their “sister” councils or their committees. If, for example, you chaired the Hastings Environment & Development Committee, I can guarantee it would be smart and illuminating to review the agenda materials for the Regional Council’s counterpart committee!

Of course that would add to a councillor’s workload. But if an enterprising citizen can do it, why not a paid councillor? It’s too easy for councillors to complain about or blame the fellows “down the road” when they are in fact ignorant of what “the enemy” is actually doing. Better to grandstand than be informed.

A fantasy

Finally, what if I as a council groupie could ask for anything? It might be web-streaming of council sessions! The Hastings Council once turned down my request to videotape a council session at my own expense (the infamous “go/no go” sports park debate, with Sam Kelt as ringmaster).

Hey, we can get webcam “eye candy” of Napier’s coast on the Napier Council site, why not something really useful? They already do it at the Taupo District Council.

Sitting through hundreds of hours of council sessions, it’s plain to me that councillors try to “raise their game” when the media is on hand. Imagine if they thought they were being recorded for posterity. And worse, that constituents might actually be watching live on their computers! What a challenge that would be those who rarely contribute, who pontificate, who seem chronically unprepared, or are simply under-qualified. There’s not a doubt in my mind that streaming video of council sessions would separate the wheat from the chaff … and reveal which emperors have no clothes.

For that reason, alas, council webcasts of more than HB scenery are unlikely in our lifetime. Unless we demand it.

Hopefully this article offers some ideas as to how you can probe candidates who promise they will make local government work better. And keep in mind, current councillors who have been around two terms or more have had plenty of opportunity already to deliver on that promise. Don’t ask them for more promises; ask for the details on what “reforms” they have accomplished.

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