Friday, July 02, 2004

The Glory of Local Government

I realise, given how most people have absolutely no interest in city council or district council business, the title of this post probably has many of you fleeing screaming but permit me this rant.

This week the Christchurch City Council set its budget for the next financial year. We're talking a sum total of several hundred million dollars worth of ratepayer money so it's fair enough to say the decisions our councilors had to make were reasonably weighty and serious.

Had you been there you might have been excused if you thought you'd somehow been whisked off into some weird parallel universe where the elected officials had somehow been magically replaced by a group of adolescent teenagers in the throes of hormonal turmoil. Their behavior was nothing short of appalling.

To be fair this is an election year so some tub thumping was to be expected. However it was the political rifts that became the focus of the 10 hour meeting (imagine having to sit through all that .... never mind home detention for criminals, send them to council meetings I say!). A bit of background is probably in order here so I'll give a brief explanation. The Christchurch City Council has been dominated in the recent past by the 2021 party which has strong affiliations with the Labour Party and other left wing parties. This year it's had a bit of a melt-down courtesy of a major downsizing of the Council by the Local Government Commission. Where there were 25 there will soon be 12 (depending on the outcome of a pending legal challenge), so things have become a bit fractious. A couple of months ago Councilors Dennis O'Rourke, Megan Evans, and Ingrid Stonhill quit 2021 and made sure they fired a few shots across the bows of the mayor, Garry Moore, as they left. The defections caused a bit of a fuss as they timed their announcement to the media for immediately after a caucus meeting (ie they somehow neglected to mention the fact they were leaving at the meeting but managed to release it to the press 20 minutes after the said meeting had finished). Since then there's been a bit of sniping but at the budget meeting on Wednesday the gloves were off.

Dennis O'Rourke made the first play by suddenly revealing at the last moment a sweeping range of economies that could save over two and a half million dollars and cut a projected rates rise from 3.59% down to 2%. He wanted to debate it there and then. The Mayor and city manager immediately got into a huddle and then said no this couldn't be done, it'd be inappropriate so O'Rourke would just have to debate his points at the right times during the meeting. O'Rourke lived up to his Irish ancestry, claimed his democratic rights were being trampled on, and threatened to take the Council to Court. At this point the media were pricking up their ears at the thought that finally there might be something vaguely interesting to report. An adjournment was called and attempts were made to soothe ruffled feathers over a cup of tea and a biscuit. With a live report of the shenanigans going out on the local radio station it very much appeared if the Council was trying to get things smoothed over before they looked like complete idiots. The Council's spin doctor Bryn Somerville was noted for his swiftness (very swift considering he's recently had both hips replaced) in approaching the press bench and "advising" what angles they should be covering. So too was the Mayor.

Anyway a compromise was reached, the legal threats were withdrawn and away they went. But it wasn't pleasant. The 2021 hierarchy, most notably Mayor Moore and Councilor Alister James, made full capital of having a go at councilor O'Rourke at every opportunity. Their line being that O'Rourke's cost saving ideas were no more than a blatant election year sham. Given some of the areas O'Rourke wanted to trim were projects he'd supported and voted in favor of when he was a 2021 member, they may just have had a point. Even more so when one recalls O'Rourke only scraped in by 100 votes at the last election! So there was a lot of screaming, shouting and gavel banging going on. The budget was really a mere sideline.

In fact things ended pretty badly as the political bunfight hit a crescendo. Part of the problem was the way the meeting had been scheduled. Normally standing orders restrict the duration of a meeting to 8 hours and it can only be extended if a majority council vote is passed. In the past this has meant the Council could adjourn and resume the meeting next day if necessary. Unfortunately some genius had scheduled the meeting for the last day of the financial year meaning it all had to wrapped up in one sitting. Well after 10 hours blood sugar levels were inversely proportional to the rising tempers. Councilor Alpers claimed the meeting was illegal (as an extension vote had been missed by a minute or so). He and others were fed up with the exchanges between Councilors James and O'Rourke. At least one was heard to describe the meeting as "crap", and another say she was leaving as she "wasn't putting up with this shit any longer".

Aren't you proud of your elected representatives Christchurch?

For the record this is what the Council achieved in its 10 hour meeting:
1) No money saved (in fact they added an extra $30,000 of costs to the budget).
2) Nude swimming areas ruled out on New Brighton Beach (heaven forfend!)
3) Resolved the Regional Council should match the 10 grand it was setting aside to deal with stray cats (this actually got a 10 minute debate)
4) Decided to spend 53 million dollars on building themselves new offices (strangely this wasn't debated at all)
5) Gave another 3 million dollars for boating facilities in a harbor it doesn't even administer (that's on top of another three million they set aside 3 years ago)
6) Set aside 11 million dollars for a rowing lake (though nobody's sure exactly where it's going to be built)
7) Managed, by the skin of their teeth, not to investigate instituting a shade policy for residents (the Council's going to save you from skin cancer!)
8) Completely reversed the way they charge rates for people living in a residential situation in rural zones (this despite only just recently voting the original method in. Some, particularly Councilor Helen Broughton had trouble recalling this)

Unanswered questions:
1) Why did Councilor Ingrid Stonhill leave so early?
2) Why was the Mayor winking at the media bench?
3) Why does Councilor Pat "I'm not racist" Harrow always raise the issue of either Maori representation, or funding for Maori issues at every annual plan meeting? (could it be he doesn't like them?)
4) Is Councilor Sally Buck mentally challenged? (I mean walking back into the chamber, after disappearing God knows where, and asking what she was voting on, and how she should vote doesn't instill a lot of confidence in her abilities)

1) The end of the bloody thing.
2) The fact that next year there'll only be 12 of the buggers left so hopefully it should only be half as long!

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