Friday 14 June 2024

The Illusion of Power: How Local Government Bureaucrats Overawe Democratically-Elected Councillors..

The Democratic Façade Of Local Government: Our district and city councillors are democratically elected to govern their communities on one very strict condition – that they never, ever, under any circumstances, attempt to do so.

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 concerning 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, then, 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.

In other words, our district and city councillors are democratically elected to govern their communities on one very strict condition – that they never, ever, under any circumstances, attempt to do so.

The three young progressive councillors who have announced their unwillingness to continue getting along by going along with Mayor Whanau should be hailed as heroes. Against all the odds, they have retained sufficient self-respect to say “This far, Tory, but no further!”

What’s more, if their colleagues in Central Government really wanted to help conscientious and courageous councillors across New Zealand, then they would legislate to outlaw any and all attempts by local government bureaucrats and/or contractors to intimidate, threaten, or by any other means overawe, those elected to serve the public interest, and enforce the people’s will.

But, don’t hold your breath.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project substack page on Thursday, 13 June 2024.


Archduke Piccolo said...

It all comes of calling the Town Clerk the CEO, and awarding these neophyte business executives insane salaries. Of course, this chump move was INTENDED all along to trump democracy at local level. This latest scandal - and scandal it is - demonstrates that bureaucracy has taken over the policy-making function in preference to their executive function, that is to say, to carrying out policy. So who carries out policy now? The profiteering class, who else?

Come the Great Assizes, Roger and Ruth (not to mention Peter Shirtcliffe and his well-heeled - and soon to be better heeled - pals) have a lot to answer for.

New Zealand is not, of course, a democracy, and never has been. But at least for a while way back when this country had at least a credible pretence of being something other than a plutocratic kleptocracy.
Ion A. Dowman

greywarbler said...

This sounds like good bedtime reading for the disenfranchised? ratepayer. But I wonder, likely to produce nightmares or a sleep dreaming of the way forward? Perhaps with less b-crats and more willing workers amongst the retired and still wise as to ways to marshall their lesser energies and those of the young and give them a friendly start in life. Add some humanity, person to person instead of cold authoritarians who know everything but not the human value of the results of what they do and oversee.

LittleKeith said...

So quite how Wellington City Council,  with the most radical woke councillor clergy in NZ lost control is beyond me. Perhaps these progressive councillors felt Tory was too conservative and the threw their eco toys out of their oil based eco cots?  Perhaps the bureaucrats are simply being handbrakes on certifiable idiots who would otherwise obliterate public money? Whatever the case, Wellington City Council seems to be desperately in need of more adults in its chambers!

New view said...

I suppose we suspected this is how it worked but I didn’t connect the dots. The debacle in Gore bares this out. The shady advisers in the back rooms at Parliament. Yes Minister. We can only guess at who has the power behind the scenes in the US. It works until it doesn’t. When those with power behind the scenes abuse their position or simply aren’t scrutinised for their decisions but are happy to let the front people take the political beating for their mistakes while they carry on taking their fat pay cheques. The CEOs and engineers are supposed to give advice not run the show but if councillors are inexperienced or weak they can quickly fill the vacuum and morph into the real unelected power behind the scenes. Who monitors these people. Scary indeed. A good incite Chris.

David George said...

The EU is, perhaps, the monstrous conclusion of empowering the professional and management class above the people and their supposed representatives. The EU parliament effectively a sop to, and an illusion of, the democratic power of the people.

The bureaucrats love regulations, the more complex the better; regulations that only they, in their wisdom, can fully interpret and implement. Never mind that they come at a heavy cost to the people least able to afford them.

Our council here in Northland raised the wall insulation requirements to 140mm Batts from 90mm. Of course you can't fit that inside a conventional 4 x 2 wall so all new houses, no matter how modest, now require 50% more timber. Genius. Ridiculous land use restrictions and ever increasing cost and complexity make affordable housing an impossibility. We're all worse off.

Jonzie said...

And that in a nutshell is New Zealand now. Sadly.

Anonymous said...

Bearing in mind one of Whanau's plans was to buy the land on which a central city cinema theatre was sitting at $32 miilion, that money borrowed, then earn virtually nothing from it, so the wealthy owners can pour the money into reopening the theatre (for what sane reason?), then return the land to the current owners at a later date. All at ratepayers expense. When do politicians have such license to burn public money so mindlessly?

The reason given was to revive the increasingly dilapidated commercial area of Courtney Place, that is going downhill in no small way, thanks to central and local body politicians decisions. Spending on such causes is not a councils job, not even close. Councils are there to ensure the foundation basics, roads, water in all forms and maintenance exist. The people, if you leave them alone, will deliver the rest or they won't.

The simple reason things like theatres, bars and restaurants exist is to make a buck, end of story. They tend to fail when technology rules them obsolete or idiot politicians fail to do their jobs and interfere or worse, as in NZ, let law and order fail. But politicians or councils can't artificially create such environments. Certainly, Auckland Council cause areas to become dilapidated simply though their efforts to create a "livable city" to achieve their carless nirvana that is at the heart of the woke councillors dreams.

It seems the quality of elected representatives leaves an awful lot to the imagination. Indeed, Auckland has such low rent councillors who feel it's their place to issue regular social media releases telling anyone who'll listen how to conduct themselves in rain or wind, not, whose long term presence in the council should have brought him to, has never thought on ensuring regular drain maintenance, a basic one would think a council should deliver to prevent localised flooding, coincidentally, as I saw just yesterday, localised flooding!. Yep, Auckland Council learnt nothing!

My conclusion is bureaucrats have to intervene to stop imbecilic elected representatives who are otherwise unemployable absolutely breaking the council! And that's back on us voters who simply must be very careful who we vote for. The red flags are usually there, never worked for a living, university academic, activist, well wisher, or as one Labour MP said last year, I became an MP to "fight against injustice". These are the idiots that should be nowhere near ratepayers money. But people vote for them.

So I beg to differ. These councillors will bankrupt a council if left to their own devices. That's how flawed our democracy is!

Don Franks said...

An accurate description of local body politics. It's been that way for a while. I recall some years back sitting in the public gallery of the WCC watching a couple of debates. Every once in a while, as a sort of punctuation, some unelected legal adviser sitting on the edge of the council table would intervene: "You can't actually do that". Upon which the speaker would either shut up or change tack. Obedience could aos be bought. Councillors showing too much stroppiness would in time be deflected by being given a seat on some committee. IE a nice easily earned extra payment, which could be removed at any time.

Little Keith said...

On this subject it seems Auckland Council would best fit the bill for a legislative separation between democratically elected representatives and the bureaucracy that runs it. Wayne Brown may be the mayor but as the loathsome Auckland Transport demonstrates frequently in it's typical tone deaf manner, he has little control of it.

Elections for councillors and mayor in Auckland are an almost virtue signalling faux democracy. And yet the fingerprints of woke ideology are everywhere.

It seems to me Auckland Councils Council Controlled Organisations, CCO's were supposed to be the sane non politicised functioning arms of the council but they too have not worked as planned. They seem to have been infiltrated by non elected bureaucrats who speak the language of woke. They are the reason AT are so out of sync with the public on nearly all subjects. AT being the biggest consumer and waster of public money, march to their beat, strangely in lock step with the progressive woke councillors, who until the last election, dominated the council. Somehow, they crossed the divide.

I don't know what happened, but regardless of the model, those charged with ensuring our communities simply function without bankrupting us, miss the objective nearly every time!

Tom Hunter said...

And amidst all this Leftie howling about neo-liberalism I see no mention of the Clarke governments 2002 Local Government Act 2002, which empowered them to do tons of stuff far beyond the boring old world of potholes. And it was championed by none other than Sandra Lee.

Labour government out of power? No problems when it can continue locally, which was always the juicier goal than any private sector shenanigans. Why fix potholes when it will dissuade drivers and thus reduce Co2 emissions.

Anonymous said...

Quoting the Post, the answer for this enigma is...

"Green councillor Nīkau Wi Neera and Labour councillors Nureddin Abdurahman and Ben McNulty will no longer commit to voting with the mayor’s policies".

“We’re not going to be co-operating unconditionally in the same way that we were, until we receive some guarantees that the progressive agenda that the mayor’s office is supposed to be pursuing is the agenda that is actually going to be pursued,” Wi Neera said.

For "Progressive agenda", read woke, deep academic humanities dept woke.

Even Tory was too practical, logical and sensible.

greywarbler said...

I think many of you just enjoy grandstanding. If we think about what outcome we want, whether practical, and the best way to get it, and only ratepayers who know something about their location and the system can put their ideas forward, well argued with bullet points, able to be discussed, refuted with fact-based defence, then we could get somewhere. At present it is hyperbole from so many - a failure in the 20th century, and in the 21st, pathetic.

David George said...

It's remarkable that councils come to implement regulations that are so obviously at odds with the interests of the people. In our area, as in most, we have a cost and availability problem with housing yet the council seem determined to make things worse. We have large numbers of lots of the mandated 3,000 M2 that could easily take another dwelling and house thousands of people at a very modest cost. But no, try and get that through council.

I was, therefore, very pleased to see the government announce that they will require councils to make secondary dwellings (granny flats, cottages or tiny homes) complying activities.
"The Government promises “granny flats” of 60 square metres or less will be easier to build after planning changes that will force councils to permit small dwellings on rural and residential zones without resource consent."

Larry Mitchell said...

The 2002 Local Government Act gave excessive powers to Council CEO's.

This was an understandable reaction against the constant meddling of elected members in Council operational matters.

A relaxation of the present status quo is now warranted ... perhaps starting with fixing the potholes?

David George said...

NZ Taxpayers union:

For the second year in a row, and despite being a major political debate, Wellington City Council Chief Executive Barbara McKerrow has denied elected councillors access to ratepayer-funded legal advice surrounding the sale of the airport shares.

This follows McKerrow this weekend releasing a new code severely limiting councillors’ access to the official information councillors require to do their jobs.

The Taxpayer’s Union has re-launched its petition calling for Barbara McKerrow to be sacked. Commenting on this, the Union’s Policy and Public Affairs Manager, James Ross, said:

“Wellington Chief Exec Barbara McKerrow believes its her job to tell councillors how to run the council. Stifling reports, denying access to official information, and hiding ratepayer-funded legal advice are par for the course in McKerrow’s little fiefdom.

“Democracy doesn’t stop applying because McKerrow finds it inconvenient. Is it any wonder Wellington is going down the pan when councillors can’t even see how the sausage is made at Wellington City Council?

“Councillors need to flex their muscles and show the Chief Exec that she works for residents, not the other way around. If she can’t come to terms with the city not being her little plaything, then the only job she’s fit for is emptying her desk on her way out.”

greywarbler said...

The taxpayers union shows its guile as soon as it announces with self-advertisement, its silly name. Since GST we all are paying tax and
the figures from stats show that the wealthy often pay the least. So
don't start with that self important b...s..t.

Larry Mitchell said...

What is good for "The Mice," ... the Councillors ... with their prescriptive and limiting code of conduct structures is good also ... for the "The Piper"

By this I suggest that a dismissal of CEO "process" be defined within the law and a mandated resourcing and operation of this be set in place.

Democracy must be the winner in this particular scrap.

Anonymous said...

The Herald ("'Vile' backlash to marae upgrades" June 17) reports on goings on at the Whanganui District Council.

The Chief Executive, David Langford, recommended a $3.5 million fund available to 20 marae over seven years. This attracted a majority (53%) of public submissions opposed.

At the council debate on June 7, Councilor Rob Vinsen said the fund would create division, and iwi should use Treaty settlements to fund marae development. He added "The community have told us quite clearly what they want".

So what happened? How did this proceed? I quote the Herald:

"Mayor Andrew Tripe took Vinsen to task for calling the grants an annual "hand out" to marae. "That is inflammatory language and not acceptable in this room".

When Vinson used the term again, despite the caution, the mayor asked Vinsen to withdraw his comment and apologize. Vinson refused, and councilor Kate Joblin called for disciplinary action.

The Mayor stopped the meeting to consult standing orders, before citing standing order 20.5 relating to contempt and disorderly conduct.

He gave Vinsen a further opportunity to withdraw his comment and apologize, which Vinsen did."

And the result?

"The chief executive's original resolutions eventually passed 7-5."

This report appears in the Herald thanks to the grandly named Local Democracy Reporting, co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.

Subversion of Local Democracy by Bullying Bureaucrats Reporting, funded by a continuation of the PIJF, might be more accurate.

David George said...

Grey, sorry, I don't really understand your point.
While the TPU are certainly against local and central government waste of tax and rates money, their concerns are broader: "Lower Taxes, Less Waste, More Accountability" according to their website.
Their comments about council staff ruling the roost are consistent with their "accountability" concerns; that politicians are, and should be, accountable to the people and therefore must be given what they need in order to make informed decisions. Sounds reasonable. No?

The Barron said...

Memories shortened through prejudice. Kiakoura earthquake, Auckland floods, cyclone Gabrielle..
Covid testing and banks and medical clinics...greeting overseas dignitaries...
At 26.2%, the Maori population of Whanganui is over a fifth of the population.
"Vile" would seem a reasonable description of withholding local body support.

greywarbler said...

Anonymouse 29/610.41
To me this is just another skirmish that I won't enter on the basis there are so many, leave it to those most concerned. But we need to keep in mind that Maori can be a strong, good backbone for their own and also wider society if they are enabled and funded and monitoring points set up so they can look at reviews of their progress and decide how to go further. Not be crushed at the start by nasty squabbling. So get rid of that and look again at what is trying to be achieved and assist in the process of getting it started and be in the background. Advance is what is wanted, towards a set goal, and with set methods with boundaries not too tight. All we have done in NZ/AO is talk, squabble, denigrate, disdain, demean, and make money and possessions our holy grail, and that without any religious spiritual value.

And the words 'hand out' seem to have been the crux of the anger. They were called 'inflammatory language'. I think they were. They were actually emotional language that feeds into deeply-held prejudices and as such are ones that should be personally restrained as coming from a pakeha 'midden' that smells. A recent one that probably arose from some pakeha National-rightwing supporter (but not necessarily pakeha!) was 'nanny state'. This is something brought up by ignorant people who continue as thoughtless, when talking about a modern working government in its democratic role. Likely to be said by someone who has been able to raise themselves within that democratic system to a point of self-satisfaction and private excess and now is prepared to cut the rope he climbed up; those behind can fall away. It's not cricket old boy.

John F. Kennedy was shot before we could find his 'feet of clay' but he left a vision scored into our minds, of better ways and times being possible. Forbes discusses this and possibly shows it being open to question, but discussion and amendments, with monitored implementation thereafter may prove it a good thought; that when adjusted some, has satisfactory practical outcomes. (I haven't read it myself but suggest it as we need to keep questing until we die and can do no more.)

John F. Kennedy is credited with popularizing the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats,” to suggest that investing in economic development can benefit everyone who participates in the economy. The mental image of many different boats floating in a marina and being lifted equally by a rising tide is elegantly simple.11 Māe 2022
A Rising Tide Of Inclusion Does Not Lift All Diversity Boats ...
Forbes › paologaudiano › 2022/03/10