Friday, June 14, 2024

Chris Trotter: The Illusion of Power - How Local Govt Bureaucrats Overawe Democratically-Elected Councillors

A DISINTEGRATION OF LOYALTIES on the Wellington City Council has left Mayor Tory Whanau without a reliable majority. The cause of this disintegration has been identified by those whose loyalty has been tested to destruction as Council staff. Not only do WCC employees and consultants stand accused of pushing aggressively for the sale of the Council’s shares in Wellington Airport, but also of intimidating and threatening Councillors opposed to the proposed divestment. If these accusations are proved, then serious questions will need to be raised about the authenticity of local democracy right across New Zealand.

But what could possibly persuade a councillor that he or she was not free to vote as they pleased? These men and women are the citizens’ elected representatives, so, surely, the opinions of the Council’s employees may be heeded, or rejected, according to the best judgement of the politicians it is their function to serve. Bluntly, Council staff and their expertise should be on-tap – not on top!

Certainly, that is the way it used to be – back in the days when the elected councillors were served by a Town Clerk, assisted by a small but highly competent staff. Back then, no Town Clerk worthy of the name would have dreamed of intimidating or threatening the citizens’ representatives. The very idea would have left the Mayor with little choice but to send his Town Clerk packing. Indeed, any failure to punish such an open affront to local democracy would have left the electors with little choice but to send the Mayor packing at the next election.

Today, however, elected councillors are served by a bureaucracy over which, in practical terms, they exercise no effective control. Theoretically, the Chief Executive of the Council is obliged to give effect to the broad policy objectives identified by the citizen’s representatives. In reality, however, councillors are strongly discouraged from interfering directly with the CEO’s interpretation of his or her received policy priorities. “Operational” matters are the CEO’s preserve – and councillors are legally forbidden from adopting a “hands-on” approach to the governance of their city. Indeed, most councils employ a “Democracy Manager” to make damn sure that the councillors keep their hands off!

No longer can an aggrieved citizen pick up the phone to her local councillor and complain long and loud about the dirty great pothole at the entrance to her street. Neither is it possible for the Councillor to pick up the phone to the foreman of the road gang that fills in the potholes on the aggrieved citizen’s side of town. Were he to be so bold, he would receive a decidedly icy call from the Council’s Democracy Manager. In the course of this “discussion” he would be forcefully reminded that he is legally prohibited from involving himself in “operational matters”. And the pothole? Ah, well, its repair would be added to the extremely long list of potholes that a privately-owned company contracted to the Council has been tasked with filling. Best guess? Sometime before the century’s end.

So, right from the get-go, elected representatives are encouraged to see themselves as people who not only should, but must, keep themselves well above the fray of day-to-day administration. What’s more, as they are earnestly contemplating staying above the fray, the Democracy Manager will be introducing them to a document called the “Councillors’ Code of Conduct”. At the heart of this code is a strict series of prohibitions against saying anything unpleasant or critical about the Mayor, their fellow councillors, the electors, or – and this is emphasised strongly – the Council staff.

Less emphasised is the fact that such documents are not legally enforceable, and that it is not compulsory to sign them. What the unwary councillor will likely fall prey to, in such circumstances, is the irresistible moral suasion that inevitably engulfs anyone who is being “asked” to sign a document that everybody else is signing.

After all, what reason would a councillor have for not signing a document intended to ensure that council meetings proceed amicably and without rancour? A refusal to sign the Code of Conduct will be construed as proof of the noncompliant councillor’s intention to cause trouble. And, being branded a troublemaker in the first week of one’s three year term is unlikely to strike most local government politicians as a good start.

To re-cap: the votes have hardly been counted before the elected councillors are being told that while they are perfectly entitled to talk about policy, they must, on no account, attempt to implement it. And, while they’re talking about policy, or receiving the reports of those who are empowered to implement it (which usually detail how little implementation has actually been accomplished) these same councillors are not allowed to get angry, call each other names, compare colleagues unfavourably with lickspittles and cowards, or – and this cannot be emphasised too strongly – in any way criticise or abuse Council staff.

The message is crystal clear: As a city councillor you have no real power and should not pretend, to anyone, that you do. It’s the Council staff that really run things. They’re the ones who keep things operating smoothly. They know what’s going on and what needs to be done. Some staff members have PhDs, others have worked successfully in the private sector. How many councillors can boast such expertise? Not many – if any. So, what should they do? That’s right, they should keep their ears open and their mouths shut. If you want to get along as a city councillor, then you’ve got to learn to go along.

And, if none of this works? If there are still a handful of councillors who still feel obliged to heed their own best judgement about where the interests of the city’s residents lie, and to follow the dictates of their conscience. What do Council staff do then?

Well, the Council’s lawyers corner the unruly councillors and proceed to spell out for them what they insist is their precarious legal position. Declaring one’s opposition to a plan to sell down the Council’s shares in public utilities, for example, and voting accordingly, could easily result in commercial interests suing them for failing to act impartially. Any proposition brought before the Council, these lawyers will insist, must be judged on its objective merits. Those who have declared their position prior to the Council’s official deliberation cannot possibly expect to cast a vote. They must, instead, recuse themselves of any involvement in the decision. In fact, it would be most improper if they were even seated at the Council Table when discussion is taking place – lest they unduly influence the outcome.

Chris Trotter is a well known political commentator. This article was published HERE


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this overview Chris. When we have rampant lefties in charge all you gonna get is more woke stuff and less democracy. I worked for a LBC for 18 years and saw all this crap creeping up on us. It has been firmly embedded by the last Labour government and will be difficult to turn around. I do hope Ms Whanau goes down a heap in the next election. Surely Wellingtonians have shit for brains if she is reelected Mayor. She is a totalitarian and the one responsible for the lawyers threats. How can she create a positive working model when doing that? Especially in the first year.

hughvane said...

Whilst focus in this article is on Wellington's woes, the analogy of the tail wagging the dog is to be found in local district and city Councils up and down the country. Genuine democracy and representation just get in the way of bureaucrats' vanity projects.

mudbayripper said...

And so, this is how democracy works. Given the current state of the country, this legally sanctified intimidation and miss use of power is mirrored at government level.
The take over is complete.
So much for governing for the people by the people.

LNF said...

This is why Local and Regional Councils are a costly failure. Voting by elected representatives should follow robust discussion from people with differing views. Looks to me like staff decide on what is to be done - usually vanity project - presented in a biased way to the elected and in a way they know the elected like - then consultation with the public - which is ignored and away we go with a swimming pool upgrade for around 100 million when to council is actually broke. Never mind the boring pipes and the goat track roads

Rodge said...

I'm not always in accord with your views, Chris, but I always read or listen to them. In this instance, I totally agree with you. The power of the unelected bureaucracy is deeply troubling whether it be in local or central government. I have had correspondence to our mayor or a specific elected councillor intercepted and re-assigned to these bureaucrats and received a meaningless form letter in return. Blah-blah, blah! I believe the current government's efforts to reduce bureaucracy at the central level is a positive step, as long as it is targeted at non-frontline parasites. The restoration of democracy at all government levels is going to take courage and resolve. A first step is bringing the issue out in the open - well done you.

Anonymous said...

This opinion piece is spot on — exactly. I have researched code of conducts in all local authorities for years, and Chris Trotter is right in hearlding a warning that staff are the tail trying to wag the dog, and succeeding. Councils only legal requirement is to have a code, but this has grown to a 2000-word document that tries to tie in knots elected members who want to challenge or dive deeper into any expensive decisions.

Robert Arthur said...

Councillors tended to be mature persons of experience. The public judged largely on their actions objectively reportd in local newspapers. But now newspapers seldom report other than councillor indisctretions. And on line sites plus a young vote ensure that councillors are often voted for on on line personality. Many councillors are out of their depth so it is litle wonder the permanent staff adopt so much power. Unfortunatel most council staff have been permeated by pro maori, who no one dares oppose for fear of cancellation.

Anna Mouse said...

The CCC staff an town clark having been wagging the elected council for years.

IMO the best idea is like the USA, where when the new administration comes in the current top management tend their resignations and are replaced or kept at the whim of the elected officials.

That has the net affect of cleaning house where ideologies are not aligned.

Eamon Sloan said...

Earlier this year I took an interest in what was a certain local body issue of the day. Sent an email to each councillor, Mayor and CEO. There was an anodyne reply from the Mayor and that was the end of the matter. From the councillors – zip, zilch, zero. I took that to mean my email to the councillors was black holed somehow. Councillors will all sit there each as mute as a jar of Vegemite!

Maybe their emails are screened in advance and dispatched immediately to the black hole. Email addresses on websites are just for show, window dressing? Beggar the thought that councillors might learn something from the outside world.

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right Chris. Anna Mouse suggests a partial remedy, and it might work very well if we could get a competent council established. But our voting system is now a farce, with youthful wannabes scrambling to get a foot on the political ladder. How about a ballot selection process, filtering for integrity, maturity, character and intelligence. Oh and no councillors’ salaries, only cost reimbursement. Come to think of it, that might look a lot like very old times. (Which seemed to work very well.)

Anonymous said...

Councils are run by officers and the CEO, not the mayor or councillors.
Officers have their own agenda and to hell with anyone who disagrees.
The system is broken.