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Mayor plans review of council governance: “time for infighting to stop”

Report from RNZ
Wellington mayor Andy Foster appears to have ambushed at least some of his colleagues with his announcement of an independent review into council governance.

At this morning council’s meeting, mayor Andy Foster told councillors their very public spats, including those over the fate of the now closed Central Library building, had undermined public confidence.

While Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta had ruled out appointing a Crown Commissioner for now, she had clearly signalled she expected them to sort it out, he said.

“I want us all as elected representatives to seize this moment, dispel the current atmosphere of rancour and partisanship and move to a position where we can make better decisions and focus on what really matters.”

Foster asked councillors to stand and show their support, which they did. However, the show of unity did not last long, with several councillors taking to Twitter to complain about the lack of warning.

Councillor Iona Pannett, a Green Party member, told RNZ she would rather concentrate on the big issues facing the city, like ageing infrastructure and the housing shortage.

“I’m disappointed to see this review being sprung on us like this, there’s been no discussion about it. Council is sovereign, in terms of the city – we do have the right to make decisions and we need to do our job. There have been some issues, but these can be resolved internally.”

A councillor at the other end of the political spectrum, Sean Rush, said they had their political differences – as evidenced in last week’s fiery meeting on the draft long-term plan – but he personally thought the interest shown by the minister was “unnecessary”.

“We went through a good robust debate last week with outcomes some people didn’t like and the press have had some fun with that. But it was still a good decision, well made, and we’re all still friends,” he said. “It’s a bit of an odd thing. I’m very happy to have the independent review but to suggest – as is the narrative – that we’re dysfunctional is to suggest that democracy can’t work.”

Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons, a Labour Party member, said she wholeheartedly welcomed the review – especially if it removed the threat of a crown commissioner.

“I think there’s deep problems across the council and we need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to make the important urgent decisions in the interests of the Wellington.

“But we can’t see this further remove elected members and residents from decision-making. We need more local democracy, not less. So that’s the basis on which I’m entering into this review.”

Foster issued a statement saying he and the councillors would front a media conference this afternoon on the review, but several councillors said later they knew nothing about it.

In the end, the mayor walked in flanked by three councillors: deputy mayor Sarah Free, Diane Calvert, who chairs the finance audit and risk committee and Northern Ward councillor Malcolm Sparrow, while councillor Simon Woolf perched awkwardly to the side and Pannett took a chair at the back of the room.

Foster batted away questions about whether councillors’ non-attendance indicated he doesn’t have their backing for the review.

“I asked them to stand, 15 people stood to say they support this. I think all of our councillors recognise we have some significant governance issues and we need to resolve that. This is a way of doing that.”

When asked whether the announcement had been triggered by the Minister’s comments, Foster said they had been discussing an independent review for a couple of months. “The Minister’s comments were timely but coincidental.”

He rejected criticism the review was unnecessary and a waste of ratepayers’ money. He said damaging leaks were undermining trust and the council could not function that way.

“So, we have confidential meetings and hey presto – the information is in the public arena, sometimes within minutes of councillors being given it. So that is not the way – if there’s something you want to share with councillors, that is a way to completely destroy your ability to do that. And that is a fundamental issue for us as a council.”

Divisions within the council were highlighted in a marathon meeting last Thursday over the long-term plan, at which many councillors accused the mayor of springing last-minute changes on them and rushing through a decision on the library.

Councillor Tamatha Paul accused Foster of mixing up governance and politics and said the review was unlikely to fix either.

“There are some serious process issues and transparency issues and that was demonstrated in the meeting on Thursday in the fact so many councillors didn’t actually know what they were agreeing to.

“But there are also political issues which the mayor referenced in terms of that partisanship – but I think that also comes with the territory and he should probably be used to it with being on council for so long.”

Politics were “muddying” things, but the underlying problem was poor process, she said.

Foster said the review could start as soon as the reviewer is appointed and the terms of reference decided – and he was keen for that to happen as soon as possible.

Cr Day wants LGNZ to carry out review

Earlier Report from RNZ
Wellington Mayor Andy Foster has today announced a review into council governance, saying it’s time for the infighting to stop.

Foster said the Minister of Local Government yesterday ruled out appointing a Crown commissioner for Wellington City Council.

But he said the fact she has even considered it should be of concern to all members.

The prospect of a commissioner has been raised after a number of major disagreements at the council, including decisions on the fate of the Central Library building.

Foster said the independent review will look at information relevant to council decision making, interview key people, observe the council in action and provide an action plan.

He did not take a formal vote but asked councillors to stand to show their support.

32 comments:

  1. Rebecca Matthews, 24. February 2021, 10:32

    I welcome an independent review of our governance and will participate with good will. I don’t see partisanship or infighting as our issues. There are some different views around the table on different issues, as there were for every council the Mayor was a member of. [via twitter]

     
  2. Dr Dean Knight, 24. February 2021, 10:38

    I worry the mayor’s diagnosis of the problem conflates governance and politics. The Council table is not a corporate boardroom where we expect sanitised decision-making by folk wearing a team uniform. It’s a site of politics — for friction, chorus of voices and accountability. [via twitter]

     
  3. Claire, 24. February 2021, 10:42

    Rebecca. Good to hear you will participate. Unfortunately the public hold a very different view of the factions and infighting and undermining at the WCC.

     
  4. Marion Leader, 24. February 2021, 10:59

    The main trouble is the beguiling effect of discussing everything behind closed doors in workshops. This means that Cr Fitzimons and her young and inexperienced colleagues are not used to acting openly as part of a public body who should let the public know what they are thinking and what they plan to do about it.
    To my mind the worst example of this was their relying on unpublished advice from officers received just before they voted to sell our land at Shelly Bay. The advice gave the wrong assurance that Council expenditure on the access road (and other infrastructure) was limited to $10,000,000. If Cr Fitzsimons is worried about governance, she could revisit her Shelly Bay decision. The latest stuff is still at a Committee stage and can be addressed as such.

     
  5. Conor Hill, 24. February 2021, 10:59

    Will there be a post-review consultation? And consultation on the consultation? [via twitter]

     
  6. Jackson Lacy, 24. February 2021, 11:03

    I really don’t like the narrative that the Wellington City Council is just full of ‘infighting’. Our Councillors are voting in accordance with their beliefs, and with the platforms on which they were elected. That’s politics, and councils are political beasts. [via twitter]

     
  7. Jill Day, 24. February 2021, 11:09

    Well said Jackson Lacy. The current challenges are issues based and yes there are varied political views around the table. Infighting is a terrible way to describe it. [via twitter]

     
  8. Claire, 24. February 2021, 11:17

    Jill it’s not really about what you or other councillors think. It will be taken out of your hands into a public arena. To be decided by the next best thing to a commissioner. Also the public who you are there to represent, do see infighting and factions.

     
  9. Meredith, 24. February 2021, 11:24

    Confused voting on a last-minute meaningless amendment culminating in the sale/privatisation of part of a valuable Council asset, our Library, without notice to councillors or the public, is not infighting. It is councillors desperately trying to do their job in the face of impossible leadership. The governance review can take place at the election. We the public will review and vote. Don’t waste my rates on more legal opinions, consultants and reviews of this kind.

     
  10. Chamfy, 24. February 2021, 11:56

    I find it so weird that split views on a council is seen as divisive. Perhaps it’s in part because I belong to so many minority categories, but it seems to me that a totally unified council signals:
    1. Not enough debate/groupthink
    2. An oppressive majority in control
    [via twitter]

     
  11. Nicola Willis, 24. February 2021, 12:17

    The shambles at the Wellington City Council is heartbreaking. Our city is facing huge issues: rotting pipes, perpetually delayed transport investment, a massive housing shortage. And yet … our Council seems more intent on destroying each other than on getting the job done. [via twitter]

     
  12. Jouer, 24. February 2021, 12:47

    I get the impression that some councillors are using their election to prepare and groom themselves for a political career in the Labour Party. Do they really have Wellington’s best interests at heart?

     
  13. Gareth Hughes, 24. February 2021, 13:44

    Wellington faces a list of serious problems but a huge problem is the Council seems totally occupied with its own internal problems. This shambolic, dysfunctional drama Austerity Andy is responsible for is taking away attention from core work – water, transport, housing & climate. [via twitter]

     
  14. Toni, 24. February 2021, 15:08

    @Jouer: I agree with your sentiments. I am so tired and fed up with the political infighting. Council is not Parliament and therefore Wellingtonians should not be held captive by political party manifests and private agendas. Councillors should be aware of their own biases and work to ensure they are impartial and open-minded when representing their constituents, instead of operating from their own private and political viewpoints. And, just maybe, the council might become far more effective?

     
  15. TrevorH, 24. February 2021, 15:10

    @Gareth Hughes. The dysfunction is longstanding and deep-rooted but it’s reached a peak now when the city is confronted by a 3 waters catastrophe. As I write I am watching contractors who have been on the job since before Christmas trying to repair a collapsing main sewer line that serves our street. It’s a band aid job because the money to replace the pipes has been frittered away elsewhere.

     
  16. Ian Apperley, 24. February 2021, 15:24

    Oh for god’s sake it is infighting, it’s been going on this whole triennium, and to try and counter that with anything other than wholehearted acceptance is basically similar to an alcoholic denying they have a problem while they stagger through life breaking stuff.
    ALL of them are responsible and while we play favourites we are forgetting that NONE of them are looking after the city.

     
  17. Jax, 24. February 2021, 16:50

    Of course it’s infighting. And often it feels a particularly catty type of infighting. Acknowledge it for what it is. I voted for people on the assumption they had the best for Wellington at heart and would vote the way they promised and would find a way forward together. Watching ‘our’ councillors at work is really disheartening.

     
  18. Kirk, 24. February 2021, 17:04

    What exactly is being described as infighting? Councilors have different opinions:views, and then they vote on an issue and that decides things. That is not infighting, that is how a democratically elected body works. If Andy is referring to the issue with himself being called out publicly as he tries to ignore the way his own council voted – that is not infighting either, that is called being made accountable for one’s own actions

     
  19. Half Tea, 24. February 2021, 18:13

    Meanwhile weeds are growing in the gutters and footpaths around the western ward and the sumps are chockablock with leaves, while water seeps out from the road surface in multiple locations. Perhaps Cr Matthews could tear herself away from twitter and have something done about it.

     
  20. Toni, 24. February 2021, 18:56

    @ Kirk: Of course, councillors may have differing opinions, but these should be expressed through “robust democratic debate”, not the infighting we are being subject to as they push their own political and personal agendas.

     
  21. Hel, 24. February 2021, 19:46

    Sadly I believe that we have a Council and Executive that care very little for Wellington. Until that changes and both start putting the interests of the City first then I am pessimistic. Rather than tackling the ridiculous state of affairs that sees them collectively thinking 17% rates increases are acceptable, they are distracted by a review. Do your job and start putting Wellington first.

     
  22. M, 24. February 2021, 20:39

    Are we missing something here? Andy Foster didn’t stop looking for ways to get the rates increase down, and did let the councillors know before the meeting about it. Isn’t this normal budget to and fro’ing. And now councillors are upset by this and contacted the auditor general.. Bit ironic. The councillors concerned about the high rental cost in wgtn are upset because Andy was trying to get the rates increase down. Glad someone is looking out for Wellington ratepayers.

     
  23. Bruce, 24. February 2021, 22:27

    Partisanship is fine, but it’s the constant undermining of fellow councillors to the media or your tens of followers on Twitter that looks like infighting to the public. Take Teri O’Neill today for instance.
    Wellington deserves better.

     
  24. Anna Fifield, 25. February 2021, 8:50

    The DomPost’s view: The mayor of Wellington has shown he doesn’t have the political skills to fix the infighting at the WCC. It’s time for a truly independent Crown observer to step in and provide some adult supervision. [via twitter]

     
  25. Michael Gibson, 25. February 2021, 10:05

    Great to hear from the DomPost editor and especial thanks for her publishing a letter today from Rayward Chung. It needs somebody like Ray to be on Andy’s Review team. He has very good governance experience and has often attended Council meetings. This is something that the new young Councillors never did before they were propelled by the Labour Party onto the Council. Wherein lies the trouble.

     
  26. TrevorH, 25. February 2021, 10:53

    @ Anna Fifield: what a thoroughly partisan comment. Sadly from the outset of this Council’s term a clique of Councillors has shown no interest in “fixing pipes”. They have been on a mission to undermine the Mayor elected to replace Justin Lester. I doubt anything will change.

     
  27. Peter Kerr, 25. February 2021, 12:38

    @Trevor H: The point of Ms. Fifield’s article is that the mayor doesn’t have sufficient skill in the role. He had to attend a “leadership course” at the beginning of his term, this after nearly three decades on the Council. The attempts to undermine the “clique” of councilors through some of the comments on this site shows just as much partisanship as anyone else.
    @Michael Gibson: Why the condescension towards young Labour councilors? The reason the city is in such a critical state is the failure of previous councils (with Councilor Foster participating in all) to fund adequately the vital services we require, such as the dispersal of depreciation funding for water works. That is why we face a 23% rate increase (orchestrated to a 17% increase); because of a chronic inability of former (and some still current) representatives to be honest about what really mattered to the city.
    The number of comments to these columns, over the last six or so years, that are damning of the council and its executive, are legendary. It’s time the mayor recognized his limitations and boldly stood aside.

     
  28. Claire, 25. February 2021, 13:32

    Peter it would prove very difficult to lead a political group that don’t want to be led. And who are at the council for their own agendas not for the people they represent. To the point where they make remarks on twitter and name submitters they disagree with. This is appalling behaviour. If a group undermines a leader it’s impossible to proceed.

     
  29. Peter Kerr, 25. February 2021, 14:34

    Claire, everybody has an agenda whether it’s business interests, the environment, property speculation, poverty reduction, etc. Trying to divorce political or interest allegiances from an elected body doesn’t happen anywhere. One of Wellington’s problems, it seems to me, is that its Council executive arm exercises a political agenda of its own as well. That’s why the Mayor is so limited and ineffective.

     
  30. Ray Chung, 25. February 2021, 14:46

    Trevor, while I consider Andy should be able to do a lot better, I can empathise with him trying to work with these young Labour and Green councillors. They have little or no experience in governance and have never been in a position of business responsibility and this is evident in how they act and behave. You blame previous councils for the malaise that we’re in, so then why are these fresh young councillors not suggesting ways of getting us out of this situation?
    Jill, you don’t like the word “infighting” but what synonym would you prefer to use? I believe that debating issues is healthy and is democracy in action but the behaviour of this council is anything but productive and that’s what has caused it to be so ineffective. The worse thing about this is I feel many of the councillors treat being in council as a joke and an opportunity to further their own ideology.
    Michael, many thanks for your kind comments and vote of confidence.

     
  31. Claire, 25. February 2021, 15:02

    Peter this kind of behaviour caused the National Party to implode.
    When chaos caused by bad behaviour extends to making fun of the public on twitter it is incredible. There has to be a leader and followers. As you know in Parliament people will find themselves without a job if not joining the overall team.

     
  32. Ray Chung, 25. February 2021, 19:03

    Hi Peter, I’m not sure when you say that everyone has an agenda and political interest, as I’m not sure how you’d define an agenda? I ran for council with the objective of reducing waste and inefficiency thus saving money for ratepayers. Is that an agenda? I suppose it is but the way you implied it, having an agenda is a bad thing? I’m against bringing central party politics into council because of the factions it causes, as evidenced in what’s happening in council now. We have councillors who don’t read briefing notes before meetings because they already know which way they’re going to vote – along party lines. Now from my perspective, that really is a bad thing! I’m all for robust debate but in the end, the objective is to do what’s best for Wellingtonians, not blindly following their ideology.

     

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