Time to police local government

With nobody policing Local Government, the troughing gravy train has for years been ignoring the law on many fronts and doing whatever it likes.

Not withstanding that the brass at most Councils think they know better than anyone else and Councillors are ignorant, the fact remains that Local Government is getting away with all manner of mismanagement and law breaking that will come home to roost in years to come.

Of course nobody will be held accountable, and the mess will take decades to remedy. Our economy will grind to a halt and costs will continue to rise.

It is somewhat reassuring that the Auditor General has finally woken up to the fact that Local Government’s all over New Zealand are in poor financial shape with failing or nearly failing infrastructure that hasn’t been maintained. But all she can do is make comments. She has little power to enforce compliance with her recommendations and she is not compelled by law to make Councils remedy issues.

And the there is nobody watching Councils where it concerns their performance on Resource Management matters. Sure the MFIE and MBIE exist but that’s cold comfort. The Environment Court does at times slap down Councils when they blunder or ignore the law, but only when issues are raised to them. Given the extraordinary costs to run a successful Court proceedings (lawyers and expert witnesses all costing big bucks) an appellant is forced to focus solely on their own issues.

In short there is nobody who is carrying the high ground and keeping Local Government honest.  

Which leads to my point. Almost.

New Zealand is not a large country. Our total population barely parallels the population of cities around the world and yet we have a geographic spread that results in the continual use of localised governance despite that its over sized for the population it serves and we actually live in a modern era of communication and travel. Truly it begs the question as to why we continue to do it this way when more efficient options are available.

Of course the answer is to take the knife to Local Government and reform, restructure and down size it to what is needed but that will take the type of brass political balls that can’t be found in Wellington except in response to financial crisis. Thus we will have to put up with the madness that is snowballing at local government level.

And now the point. Most of the issues of Local Government stems from their complete disregard for the law. But that’s because nothing happens when they do ignore the law. Write a District Plan that is contrary to case-law or the Act – so what – nothing happens. Get the Council into dept and fail to perform your functions and duties – well the Auditor General might bring it up, but still nothing happens.

And so its time to suggest that the Government consider instituting a more robust and powerful watchdog over local government. One that must act to prosecute Councils, revoke rights and that can step in to take control when Councils balls it up. Its only then might they start to act reasonably and run our cities and regions appropriately.


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  • phronesis

    An easy answer would be to prevent councils from borrowing money. Most of them own so many non core assets that they could fund required infrastructure by selling down assets. Of course this wouldn’t get rid of their existing debt but it would at least stop the rot and force them to focus on what’s important.

  • Whitey

    I firmly believe it is time to do away with local government entirely.

  • Chris Chitens

    In Masterton we have 11 councillors. 4 of them work hard and make up their own minds. Everyone else just agrees with the mayor by default. Drives me mad!

  • Michael_l_c

    ‘Write a District Plan that is contrary to case-law or the Act – so what – nothing happens.’ The problem here is that the council has plenty of my/your money so they can say, we are right. The only final option the High Ct. Big $.

    A watchdog able to penalise councils, a bit like the Stock market ‘fining’ a company or directors, a joke, the company pays. The only way to make councillors, managers etc take notice is to make them personally liable for criminal, reckless, outrageous or persistent behaviour not just ‘getting it wrong’.

  • Disinfectant

    Raises a few points.
    Reform only seems to come about in the public sector when it is bankrupt.
    A number of councils have millions in assets such as land, buildings, LATES and CCO’s. And the reason being is that they have over-taxed their ratepayers for years.
    Then gone on to build empires, rather than deal to infrastructure requirements.
    Every council should be required to put together a register every year of what is deemed to be in the “public good” and what is not. Everything that is not should be disposed of.

  • Vlad

    If there was an up-vote for Cam’s posts, I would click on this one until my fingers gave out. The lack of oversight for Councils and their badly-managed pillaging of ratepayers’ funds is a scandal that is only just under the radar in NZ.

    Newspaper reporters on the local body round rarely have the skills to give their behaviour the scrutiny it deserves.

    But taken together they are an under-examined blight on our national performance.

    They are populated by B-grade politicians dragged along by the nose by overpaid second-rate bureaucrats.

    We should all take a small share of the blame for this by failing to get out to vote when the muppet parade is under way at local body election time.

    • JeffW2

      Correction – grossly overpaid second-rate bureaucrats.
      Hope you don’t mind.

  • Ross

    Speaking of illegal activity, what about the CCTV systems several councils have deployed around NZ? A lot of them are a clear breach of privacy, and even the Privacy Commissioner is reticent to tackle the problem and/or make a ruling.

    • Wallace Westland

      Who’s privacy? Mine?

      They’re not interfering with my privacy! There’s nothing I do in Queen St that can’t be filmed and deleted.

      • Ross

        What if a camera was recording what you were doing through a window in your home without your knowledge?

        • Wallace Westland

          Have the council started placing CCTV cameras at the windows of private homes?
          Think you’re drawing a pretty long bow.

          • Ross

            I didn’t expect to be called a liar…

            but here you go: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/63767776/how-much-can-cctv-cameras-see

          • Wallace Westland

            For pete’s sake. The privacy commissioners snivelling is as relevant as the womens affairs one, the children’s, one the race relations one, the equal opportunity one and all the rest. The only commissioner I’m interested in hearing from is the Commissioner in charge of disbanding commissions. Has she started yet?

            That article is just a load of sanctimonious bollocks. The cameras were not placed to see into private dwellings it was an unfortunate side effect that some could or could be turned!

          • Ross

            You think this is an isolated incident?

            But hey, if you’re comfortable with a city council “inadvertently” capturing this footage from places where people EXPECT privacy then we will never agree on this. Thanks for replying anyway. It’s always interesting to gauge other opinions.

          • Ross

            For clarity, I have no issues with CCTV, in fact I encourage it. I just want them deployed so their presence doesn’t break the law.

  • Wallace Westland

    This article is just so bang on it’s laughable. Why can’t our politicians see this?

    Because over the years our National elected cowards (both Labour and National) abdicated responsibility for the tough calls at a local level and fobbed it off to councils.
    All the while being fully aware of the dearth of talent and real life experience in the average local council but that the heat would not burn them.

    The creation of regional councils along with the RMA being a case in point.

    In the super city alone a large number of the out of control functions of our council could be pulled back into the Government umbrella and then overseen by competent bureaucrats at a local level. For example roading and construction projects, tendering etc. The list is endless and nationally any number of Goliath bureaucracies could be downsized by making use of todays technology and centralising management.

    AND it doesn’t all have to be managed from the ivory towers of Auckland central and Courtney Place. There is no reason some of the load could not be spread to the regions.

    • Disinfectant

      So right.
      The Regional Tourism Organisations (RTO’s) could all be operated by a Tourism New Zealand appointed manager.
      At the moment most RTO’s are huge organisations receiving un-contested funding from Local Authorities.
      Some RTO’s are private companies who have never had to either compete or feel the heat of competition.

  • HemiMcK

    Your right on here. The system is so broken (corrupted) it would be hard to know where to start to fix it.
    A start would be to require intelligible and informative annual reporting. A Council I was paying rates to had a number of “Investment Assets” , not related at all to their core business. I could I find no proper reporting of what return this communal investment fund was making on my behalf. Needless to say they never asked me whether I would like them to make investments on my behalf.

  • Well who is to blame? Us! How many of the voting population actually research what their council members stand for, what their record is, how good they are as stewards of our hard-earned rates etc etc. How many of the eligible voters actually bother to vote in their local elections? You guessed it- 30% or thereabouts. Yet we bleat like sheep headed for the slaughterhouse about the profligate waste of ratepayers money by an over-bloated group of council members and executives hell bent on wasting as much as possible and promoting crazy monuments to their own stupidity. Let’s all change that. Next local elections, let’s all resolve to turf out every existing council member and mayor throughout the country. That should send a message to central government that there’s something very wrong with the state of local governance. Action, not words is the only solution.

    • Its more the management of the councils that are at fault. In most cases the elected councilors don’t have the know how to make the decisions needed to strip & rebuild the council management structure. So what we need to do is vote in some suitably ruthless business minded people to councils, not the namby pamby group we get now. Though I must admit if I was in Auckland, I’d be calling for wholesale firing of the lot of the councilors

    • Wahbonnah

      I’m not taking the blame for numpties being voted in, but you can Cavalier.
      I actually take the time to read who I’m voting for, and tbh there’s not much inspiring me each election!!!!
      So what do you suggest we do now then?

  • Well, a Local Government Agency, who’s job is to actually to enforce the law, would be a refreshing change, but I doubt we’ll see it. National hasn’t held, in Government, councils to account (in particular) and the same applies to Police. We complain about their lack of enforcement (such as with political crimes), but who’s in charge again? This Government has been taking a ‘don’t rock the boat’ attitude when it comes to more publically contentious things, but then gone and made serious changes in matters ‘off the radar’ (for ordinary people, hence things like the insurance law reforms, changes in securities law, etc.). So I doubt we’ll really see much change or a new enforcement branch for incompetent local authorities.

  • rua kenana

    Some years ago the then Rodney Council became dysfunctional with councillors/staff unable to work together.
    So the Wellington government appointed a commissioner, whose only significant achievement was to approve what is now an ugly, leaky, stachybotrys infested high-rise totally dominating the once attractive Orewa skyline. This building was permitted on the grounds that its impact on the area would be negligible.
    Said commissioner then collected his fees, from whoever it was that paid these (ratepayers?) and departed.
    The point of this is that while some councils are bad, and some are really really bad, central government appointed governance may be even worse, particularly if the Soviet -style commissar (or is that commissioner?) system is employed.

    • Wahbonnah

      I thought that Govt appointed commissioner stopped all the extra spending and cured all your problems up there?

  • Wahbonnah

    How long would it take the AG to audit all our councils, regional and local, and make recommendations to them?
    Then, the National led Govt can actually see how bad and widespread the problem is, and go from there.
    I agree, something needs to be asap, but these clowns in Wgtn are slow off the mark on this one.

  • Platinum Fox

    The problem that we have is that councils should be the equivalent of a corporate board of directors but the numpties who put themselves forward as candidates and are elected to those councils do not, in general, have any of the skills relevant to oversight of what is the equivalent of a large commercial operation. Management appears to be stuck in the habits satirised in ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Gliding On’ and have more interest in empire building and creating red-tape than providing efficient service to their regions.
    Sadly, those of us who have or have had real jobs have generally paid little attention to local government matters and due to that neglect must therefore share the blame for the position we now find ourselves in.
    There appears to be an almost complete lack of appreciation among councils and their staffs that they are spending public money – this represents a misunderstanding of their fundamental objective which should be to provide core services for minimum cost. As a result we have a proliferation of bloated council units (ATEED and AT are prime examples) which generate dubious benefit to residents and ratepayers at enormous cost.
    That the checks and balances in the present system are weak is demonstrated by the debacle with the overegged sewerage system up north (was there no common sense check at all?) and the current debacle of Auckland Council’s attempts to harmonise rating across the region while at the same time wanting to commit to huge unfunded expenditure for Red Len’s monumental railway tunnel.
    A good start for improvement within local authorities would be to eliminate the use of gobbledegook in council reporting, to require a universal annual charge that accurately reflects costs be levied to cover basic services such as roads, parks, storm water and rubbish collection and to limit general rate increases to no more than the increase in CPI + 1%.