never been a Council mayor or chair, born, created, or cloned who would prefer
to officially open the valve on a new sewage scheme in preference to opening
the freshly polished handle on the front door of a new Council office block.
Fear not, good people of the Clutha District, for you are not alone as a cursory glance at the Dunedin City Councils stewardship of another essential utility – electricity distribution - shows. The debacle over Aurora’s neglect and therefore the DCCs lack of oversight of that network, shows a disturbing trend of inattention towards the less sexy but entirely essential services.
In this season of goodwill it seems inappropriate to mention the failures of virtually every other council in NZ, however the Wellington and Auckland councils appear to be habitual offenders when it comes to sewage discharge into beaches. (Pity the poor dairy farmer who even allows ponding on their land - let alone discharge into a water body.)
Council are in
the happily privileged state of being a natural monopolies so it would seem
that laws of commerce do not apply to councils. Were the ownership of sewage
infrastructure vested in a private or publicly owned company, it is entirely
reasonable to expect all the directors of such a company to be held fully accountable
for their actions or inaction. Mayors
and councillors who are defined as independent contractors, seem to be able
look the other way and take no personal responsibility. That certainly seems to be the case with the
Clutha council with the possible exception of one unfortunate employee, further
down the food chain, who appears to be thrown or allowed to walk under the no 7
bus - affectionately named ‘Mea Culpa’. Those being directly and ultimately responsible
(the Mayor and the CEO) apparently considered their “deeply embarrassing” situation
- for a moment in time - and found it to be entirely survivable given their
expressions of remorse, and the reality that the next Local Government
elections are still some way off. Mayors
and CEOs are not elected, paid and or appointed based on their ability to
express regret, coupled with a promise to do better next time. As insurance
covers the council, no real time sanction has been applied by the court on
those personally and collectively responsible, which is the governing body of
the Council, which was fined around $500,000k .
In 2002 the
then Government passed the Local Government Amendment Act which gave councils
the power of General Competence. In other words, councils were given the
authority to engage in projects which were well outside their main functions of
sewage, water, roading. There was
however a requirement for “special consultation” with their ratepayers,
enshrined in the legislation. This has been largely ignored as nobody within
Local Government has defined exactly what special consultation actually means.
A local referendum would be a good start.
The effect of that authority (of General Competence) has clearly
resulted in less attention been given to the basic needs of communities in
favour of the highly visible yet not so essential wants and not needs. Some of
these wants have been unkindly described as vanity projects.
I wonder if
many or indeed any of our local government representatives recall the now
famous words of the British Foreign Secretary - Lord Peter Carrington at news
of the invasion of the Falkland’s Islands in 1982: “I was wrong in the
assessment of what they were doing and therefore I am responsible”. He resigned.
Are there any
parallels here and does it not set a standard for all elected officials? The
election to public office is a generous choice by the public which must always be
met with an equal measure of accountability by the recipient.
Gerrard Eckhoff is a former councillor on the Otago Regional Council and MP.