Sunday, March 14, 2010

Frank Newman: Activists on Council Payroll

While I have done my utmost to ignore the local political scene since retiring as a councillor in 2004, I could not resist the temptation to call in on a local community consultation meeting last week. The meeting was called to receive community input on “Sustainable Futures 30/50”, an ambitious plan which purports to have the objective of asking people what they would like our district to be like in 2050. The exercise raises a number of interesting issues.

The turnout to the meeting was typically dismal (but more than the nil turnout to another of the meetings!). The same clique of 20 or so aging faces that always attend these meetings locally were there, plus a few others. It was like stepping back in time and having to listen to their same complaints: houses are visual pollution and the council should stop all development, forestry trucks are dangerous and should not be allowed on the roads, and dogs and cats should be banned from households living next to bush reserves.

I could not help but laugh aloud when council staff called us to a particular part of the hall where they laid out maps of the district. Like kindy, we watched as dominos were piled like Jenga game blocks to show us the perilous effects of projected population increases, which was made even more perilous by overlays showing the apparently imminent threat of rising seas on the one hand and looming drought on the other. In response the same old familiar faces nodded in approval, tut tutting about the dire state of our planet, then made earnest pleas for council to do something to make people change their behaviour and stop them from living where they want to live!

While on the one hand it’s comical, it’s also disturbing to see environmental activists, including those on ratepayer paid salaries, manipulating the local government process.

Staff offered three “Futures” for comment. According to them our futures ranged from do nothing (Future 1) through to consolidating growth into certain areas ("Nodes") they considered appropriate. They made no secret of the fact that they favoured Future 3, and declared 78% of all public submissions received so far favoured Future 3. What they did not mention is only 48 comments had been received, all of those from people attending these meetings – people like the aging ladies at our local meeting who claim to be speaking for the planet because the planet can’t speak for itself (but if it could it would say whatever they were saying). Of course staff don’t mind this, because it suits their cause to have these sympathisers making submissions.

Another thing staff omitted to mention is that Future 3 is Smart Growth under another guise (see Smart Growth’s a concept being pushed by environmental advocates because, according to their website, “… communities are questioning the wisdom of… eating up the open space and prime agricultural lands at the suburban fringe, and polluting the air of an entire region by driving farther to get places.”

As it happens the staff member advocating Future 3 was the very same staff member who spends all of his time at the council writing papers on activist causes, like the need to have tree protection policies to prevent the mass desecration of all native flora, and he recently completed a 110 page report on the perils of global warming (a report that drew heavily on the Stern and the IPCC reports). No mention was made of research that contradicted those reports.

When questioned, he revealed they had not costed Future 3 and could not say what effect it would have on household rates. Nor had they done a sensitivity analysis to show the effect changes in population growth had on the height of the tettering piles of dominos. They did however say their figures were based on Statistics New Zealand data. That of course was a half truth – no doubt the historical data was from Stats NZ data but the 40 year projections were their own - details of which were conveniently not disclosed.

When chatting after the presentation, the head of the Policy Department said his greatest fear was that councillors would ignore their report! While that's his greatest fear and my greatest hope, his comment reveals staff not councillors are setting their work agenda, and staff are using whatever tactics they can to have their pet projects implemented – including holding farcical public consultation meetings attended by socialist environmental activists.

In the Whangarei District Council there are more people writing social and environmental policy reports than there are staff processing resource consents! In my view councillors should sack the entire Policy department so they can flee to the welcoming embrace of more appropriate organisations like DOC or the United Nations. Ratepayers would save about $1.5m in salaries alone and no doubt the same again in other costs. $3m is about 10% of the general rate take, which is a sizable reduction and no doubt one that would be appreciated by ratepayers.

The most disappointing thing about this is councillors are too dim to realise they are being manipulated by their staff.


Warren Slater said...

And by the way Frank, as Pat & I attend many meetings, what category do we fit into?

larry mitchell said...

Mmmmm ... all very thought-provoking and no doubt sincere Frank. And about half of your views are right ... the other half relates to 'the way we do things in loc guv'. Sure it could use some scrutiny. Many of the ills you point out though, are (IMHO) really just good (or better) process that has been hihjacked by the beauracrats. If you want my (very) detailed considered views on many of the matters you raise see ... a recent research paper for Canada's Frontier Centre titled 'Smart Government ... etc.' Its (NZ) content may surprise you.


Larry Mitchell NZLG Finance & Policy Analyst.

PS; Whangarei DC is one (rare exanple) of a NZ Council that ... according to our very detailed statistics ... has recently significantly reduced its staff numbers and appears to be attempting to correct some of the stuff you so roundly criticise. Time to stand again?

Frank Newman said...

Hi Warren, you and Pat are part of the "plus a few others"! You are both a credit to the democratic process and are to be commended for caring.

Frank Newman said...

Hi Larry, many thanks for your comment. I will indeed have a look at the paper you have suggested. Unlike you I am not a fan of the Local Government Act 2002. As someone who was on council before and after the introduction of the Act I saw its effect first hand. I believe it needs to be reformed before we will see any appreciable improvement in local governance, and I totally reject it as a model for overseas countries to adopt. I am of course open to alternative views and would be interested in looking at before and after stats for council debt and total rate take.

As to you foot note questions. Me standing again... absolutely not... no way. I wish to remain an independent commentator with no representative or commercial relationships with any local authorities; and the six year sentence I served is enough!

As to the current council, it appears to be making an effort to improve council finances, although the effects are not yet evident. I have no doubt that had the previous mayor not been booted out of office council's finances would be significantly worse than they are today. To give you an example, when the previous council breached the debt limit prescribed in its policy, its solution was to change the policy! That is how absurd and how lacking in leadership the previous council was. The concerning thing is that most of the councillors who voted for the policy change are still there! I understand the current council is now also likely to breach the debt policy. It will be interesting to see if they too simply change the policy or implement a program to reduce the waste that remains within the council.

Allan Johnston said...

Well said Frank. As another ex-councillor I share your concerns re 'the usual suspects' in these consultation processes as well as on the steady emasculation of the elected members by council officers.

larry mitchell said...

I would be interested (and others too?)in the specifics of your proposed LGA reforms (a snapshot would do). What (better?) chance though would they (your changes) have of getting properly implemented given the staff management (bureaucratic capture) issue ... which was the key position of my earlier contribution. The NZ LG Act I repeat (compared to others ... like try the British Columbia model for size)is not IMHO THE PROBLEM.On matters of transparancy, accountability and financial management it is brilliant as law, pity about some of the 'practitioners'including its auditors.

Regards ... Larry Mitchell(Devil's Advocate ... and never got elected*).

* I consider this a badge of "honour" ? ... or of something?.

Frank Newman said...

Hi again Larry, the detailed changes I think necessary are better dealt with as an opinion piece rather than a blog, and something I can address for the future. My basic concern with the Act is it gives councils the power to do anything they wish (including owning night clubs, eg Hamilton City Council). The previous legislation was prescriptive and therefore limited councils role to that which was prescribed by central government.
Lifting thee lid on their powers opened way for vested interest groups to target local councils. For example, the anti GE group has targeted local government to prohibit GE crops in their district plans - in other words shift approval from central to local government agencies. They did this specifically because they were unhappy with the regime adopted by central government.

Local government is being lobbied to deal with every social itch and scratch - things that should be dealt with by central government, not ratepayer funded local government.

My solution, in broad terms, is to again restrict the activities of local government to the provision of community infrastructure. Central government can deal with social, cultural, environmentral and economic well-beings.

Anonymous said...

The Manukau City Council officers are also engaged in this kind of boondoggling with a project called towards 2060. Take a look at some of the stuff being promoted over the course of a two day workshop to the people of Manukau:
• Some communities are working on energy reduction plans which emit low levels of greenhouse gases and promote equitable lifestyles
• Competition for resources will lead to economic and social failures
• Traditional Māori World views of stewardship of our resources (kaitiakitanga) provides a sustainable road-map for the future

• It warns of climate change and the fact that sea levels are rising as fast in NZ as the rest of the world – maybe even faster!

Frank Newman said...

Thanks for that. It's all so very familiar.