Monday, December 28, 2020

Gerrard Eckhoff: Balclutha Debacle

There has 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. 

The good rural people of Owaka, Stirling, Kaka Point, Lawrence and Tapanui (south and west Otago ) can rightly feel aggrieved that the proposed new community hall in urban Balclutha seems to be a rather large distraction for the Clutha District Councillors.

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.

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