Councils generally pretty powerless

OPINION: Most Kiwis find the structure of the United States government confusing. As well as a president, they have two parliaments, together known as Congress but divided into the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Also, the 50 individual states (with some exceptions) each have two more parliaments and a governor. The states have regional governments in the form of counties. There is a federal court system that covers all the states, and another court system within each state.

This multilayered bureaucracy leads to a complicated police system. The counties have sheriffs, the states have troopers and highway patrols (remember the CHiPs TV series?), large cities have police departments, the national government has the FBI and the federal courts have US Marshals. Then some government departments have their own police force, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Los Angeles has the LAPD, but the city has sprawled out into four counties. If the county sheriff and the police detective uncover drug trafficking (DEA responsibility) from Dallas (Texas Rangers) across the state line (federal offence, so FBI) by an escaped prisoner (US Marshal), then there is going to be an argument over jurisdiction.

In spite of this, most Americans would find our local government structure to be even more confusing. They would wonder why councillors don't run the council.

The Local Government Act (2002) requires the regulatory function of council to be separated from the operational function. This means the councillors we elected don't actually have much power at all, and are not allowed to represent us, the voting public, is most of what the council does. This includes the mayor.

Essentially, the only powers that councillors have are to set the rates, pass bylaws, borrow money and adopt the Long Term Plan. 

Note the wording: "adopt". The Long Term (or 10-year) Plan, which is the council's budget, is adopted by councillors, not written by them. Staff prepare the finances and present the options. Councillors may ask questions, but can't issue orders. Ultimately, they only have a "yes" or "no" vote on the whole document, not the detail.

Even the subject matter of bylaws is restricted. The act limits this to rules that affect the likes of public health and safety, nuisance, and offensive behaviour in public places – so local speed limits, noise control and liquor bans, but not freedom of speech (someone remind Phil Goff).

I made a couple of omissions from that list of powers. Councillors do appoint the chief executive officer, but the act allows a contract of up to five years – which means not every councillor (elected for three years) gets a say on the CEO. Likewise, councillors have the power to approve the District Plan ("approve", not write) but that has only happened once since 2006.

The mayor's role is largely symbolic. He or she gets to appoint the deputy mayor or committee chairs, and has a casting vote in the event of a tie. By tradition, this special vote is to be used to maintain the status quo. Apart from that, the role is more about cutting ribbons than running the city. 

The CEO is the elected council's sole employee. All other staff are employed by the CEO, so they do not have to answer to our elected representatives and are not accountable to the citizens. So much for democracy.

It is the CEO who runs the council's operations and is responsible under the act for the performance of all staff. But protected by a five-year contract, just how responsible does a CEO need to be? 

Not very, when one considers that the act also states that one of the governance principles of a council is to "ensure that the role of democratic governance of the community … is clear and understood by … the community."  I haven't come across a council that has fulfilled this requirement, as demonstrated by the fact that most people are unaware of the limited power of our representatives.

I included myself in that until just recently.

When we get upset with councils, we blame our often-powerless councillors and occasionally get to vote them out in frustration, but we don't get to change the staff, culture, policies, regulations, systems, forms and processes. It seems that the councillors are the fall guys for the staff. This is true for all councils.

So if there is a pothole in your Waikato road, there is no point complaining to Waikato District Mayor Alan Sanson, because he is not allowed to do anything to fix it. You can take your chances with the roading department, but staff there don't answer to a mere ratepayer. You have to blame the unelected chief executive, Gavin Ion.

The Hamilton Residents & Ratepayers Association is working towards a national association so all voters are better informed and able to exercise their democratic rights. We will work towards revising the Local Government Act (2002) to achieve greater accountability. We have a new website, www.hamiltonratepayers.com, where you can find out more. 
* Andrew Bydder is the spokesman for the Hamilton Residents & Ratepayers Association and a local architect. 


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