Monday, June 25, 2012

Are Engineers & NZTA collaborating to 'gold-plate' roading projects?

Today a constituent complained to me about the $4.5M cost of removing a roundabout in front to Hamilton's 'The Base' and replacing it with a full traffic-signalled intersection. His complaint is quite justified, and I replied....
   In this case, both myself and one or two other Councillors suggested 'ramp metering' on the current roundabout, rather than the full, expensive signalised intersection. However, our traffic engineers, in their wisdom, have agreed with    NZTA's traffic engineers (who have masses of experience and never cock anything up) that the only solution is the gold-plated one.
   Interestingly, a number of people, including Councillors, raised the need for a signalised intersection here right back near the start of The Base – however the collected wisdom of the traffic engineers said this was not necessary at the time (when it would have been both cheaper and more affordable). 
   On our Council, with its current structures (including the disbanding the Transport & Infrastructure Committees), we do not usually have the expertise or focus to convince the majority of Councillors that the engineers are not necessarily right. An added complication is that on a number of occasions, NZTA has said to us – so our staff report – that their subsidy for roading works (I was going to say 'transport works' but remembered roads are the only part of transport NZTA funds nowdays) is only available if HCC agrees to go with the gold-plated solution. The general line from NZTA is "Have we got a deal for you!" or something similar.
   Needless to say, Councillors who are not so familiar with transport issues (which is most of us now, under the current structure) feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, and end up agreeing to go with NZTA and our traffic engineers, with what they consider to be the only deal on the table.
   You might be interested to know that it is not just The Base intersection where we are contemplating spending megabucks to achieve a gold-plated roading solution, when something lesser would do, at least for some time:
  • Extension of Wairere Drive south from Ruakura Rd to Cobham Drive – 3 or more years ahead of schedule: for 12 years Council has had a policy that we don't support completing the ring road (this is the last section) until the Hamilton Bypass on the Expressway is completed – because we don't want Wairere Drive, an internal city road designed for city traffic – to be used as a de factor state highway for through traffic (like Avalon Drive was for many years). Our staff tell us that NZTA is refusing to guarantee the normal subsidy for this stretch of the road unless we start it immediately the section through to Ruakura Rd is completed (next year) - this is at least 3 years ahead of schedule.
  • 4-laning of Wairere Drive from River Rd to Resolution Drive – this may become necessary when Resolution Drive is hooked up to the Expressway via exit and entry ramps near Horsham Downs (and a significant increase in traffic entering the city from the north happens). But this work (which Council may have to pay towards) is not in our 10 year plan for construction at all, yet staff are planning to expand Wairere Drive in this area next year, and have told me that NZTA have agreed to provide their subsidy for other parts of Wairere Drive only on the basis that this work is part of the deal. With the new traffic lights being installed at River Rd/Wairere Dr intersection, it is not necessary at this stage to expand the road east of there.

But then who am I to question the engineers?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Why your elected reps NEED to be in the kitchen!

Wairere Dr soon to look like
this, say HCC engineers
   The latest demonstration of the need for elected Hamilton City Councilllors to get involved in the details of important projects occurred last week, when engineering staff told us that they not only disagreed with using the new lanes on Wairere Drive/Pukete Rd, during peak times, as bus or 'transit' lanes (where users must have at least 2 people in the vehicle), but that they had NEVER raised this with NZTA, who are subsidising the work.
   Councillors had asked management for over 2 years to ensure they had a timely discussion on this matter – well before the contract was even let for the current work, but are now being told by HCC engineers that the job has nearly finished and the road is about to open, with no work being done of the bus or transit lane proposal.

   The irony is that HCC has a transport strategy - Access Hamilton - that previous Councils consulted heavily over, and that NZTA claims is 'best practice' in NZ - that calls for more bus priority measures on our roads - and generally a better deal for public and active transport.
   HCC management continues to assure us that engineers are not determining Council policies, and that elected members really do have the chance to make decisions on key transport issues – but their response inevitably calls into question who is actually running the show.
   Without the Transport Committee, that most larger Councils have (and HCC used to have) overseeing the implementation of our policies, including high-level designs for this particular project, the engineers and their NZTA funders are indulging in a road-building orgy that works against Council's own transport strategy, and will help doom the city to worse congestion in the future. 
   I have no issue with Council democratically deciding on a course of action that may not be what I personally think should happen – however I have a massive problem with staff not putting a key issue before the elected wing – when it has been asked to do so.

   I also have a massive problem with staff implying, as they have done this time, that matters are already decided and cannot be unwound – being presented with fait accomplis does not lead to good governance.
   Its time to get back into the kitchen!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Minister should think more carefully on asset sales

   Local Government Minister David Carter needs to think carefully before advocating sweeping asset sales by local councils, as he seems to be doing at the moment. The lessons of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia have not been learnt by Governments that think you can balance the ledger with one-off asset sales.
   When the Lange 'Labour' Govt flogged off KiwRail for a pittance (after campaigning in 1984 to save it - yeah, right!), it clearly didn't have a clue about the downstream costs of doing so - line closures, price rises, job losses, station closures and, eventually very expensive Government bailouts and buy-backs.
   Here in Hamilton, the 1990's City Council corporatised its power company, losing effective control for 99 years, and condemning its community to years of sharply rising power price rises. it was only narrowly prevented from completely flogging it off, with community trustees being forced to raise megabucks to buy out foreign corporate raiders.
   Selling airport shares can sound attractive at first glance, but if you think an airport is a strategic asset that a community or region needs for reasons like economic development, tourism, convenience of local residents, etc. then you would need to make sure any purchaser was willing to forego market returns on investment in order to keep the strategic asset as a going and affordable concern. Of course there are some purely commercial assets that Councils can, and probably should, sell - in Hamilton's case, it is time that the Novotel/Ibis Hotels shares are sold - the investment has done its job of ensuring sufficient quality visitor accomodation is available, the market conditions are reasonable, so lets sell that one, and use SOME of the proceeds to pay off debt, while ensuring vital social and community services continue.
   But don't sell pensioner housing, and community recreation facilities like the YMCA, unless you can be guaranteed their new owners will stay in the game for which those assets were intended. And if you do, make damn sure the proceeds of social asset sales like these are re-invested for the purposes they were originally intended!
   Finally, its all very well for Mr Carter to say the V8s was an event Hamilton CC shouldn't have funded (isn't 20/20 hindsight a wonderful thing?), and that the Ellerslie Flower Show in Christchurch is a "good" event for a Council to run - if he checked all the facts, he would know HCC tried to 'purchase' the Flower Show when Auckland decided to can it, only to be outbid by Christchurch City. Had Hamilton put up the $1-2 million Christchurch CC forked out, we might have had the 'good' event and Christchurch might have been left with the V8s - to add to their CEO's salary!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Council community services lack creative thinking

   Listening to submitters today opposing the sale of Hamilton City Counil's pensioner housing units, I was struck by the contrast between the way the local government system, including our own, creatively and strategically supports the funding and development of corporate projects and big sporting and other events, while being strangely quiet and un-strategic when support is needed for important community services and even amateur sport services targeting our youth. 
   Council management, egged on often by Council leadership, regularly come up with creative concepts for spending relatively vast amounts on infrastructure needed for industrial and commercial developments, or funding packages for events like world cups of professional sport or stadia and theatres servicing the high-end needs - but when faced with keeping a local pool open, a few pensioner flats upgraded, community centres open, or sports centres for schoolkids available; the creative juices of local government management and leadership, not to mention much of the corporate community, inexplicably dry up. 
   There is a crying need for professional and political leaderships within local govt to get into the game - in these trying economic times - of advocating for social and community needs to be met, and proposing creative funding and development packages that will address those needs. 
   We cannot rely on central govt - of any stripe - to meet these needs; at best they can help local communities meet these needs, but their one size fits all approach is unlikely to cut the mustard in most communities.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Nameless, Faceless council attacker outed - hides behind son's name

   The so-called Concerned Citizen website and billboard campaign against Hamilton City Councillors has been revealed as the brainchild of one Ray Stark, Founder and Executive Chairman of 'TalkingTech Ltd', an international 
IT, Communications, debt collection & local government services company.
   Stark used the name and address of his son, and fellow company executive Phil Stark, to front the website. 
   In 1998 Stark was involved with Gary Mallett (former ACT President) and other ACT members in a campaign to get members elected to the Council on the so-called City Vision ticket - TalkingTech's groundbreaking automatic phone messaging service was used to call thousands of Hamilton voters to canvas for their votes, helping get 4 members of the team, including Mallett, elected.
   Stark has also been involved with a Hamilton church, but it is not known why he commenced this secretive campaign, or attempted to hide behind his son's name.
   It is expected that he has plans to run a similar secret squirrel campaign against elected councillors in other cities.
   It is ironic that the TalkingTech website sells itself as providing services for local government:
"Use our COLLECTIONS solution to provide your customers with a friendly reminder that they have an outstanding balance due on their council tax or housing rent account.  We can provide automated payment options for your customers (for example, payment fines) and even facilitate continuous credit / debit card set up."
    Expect such technology to be used in the lead-up to the 2013 council elections for the benefit of those who Stark supports.

Nameless, Faceless Cowards

   A group of nameless, faceless cowards with heaps of cash - that's how I describe the perpetrators of the expensive billboard on Mill St, Hamilton - attacking the councillors and calling themselves 'Concerned Citizens'.
   As politicians, you have to be prepared to put up with some pretty vitriolic, and often personal, attacks - but the ones that are beyond the pale are those - like this so-called 'concerned citizens' crowd, that spend money attacking you, but haven't the guts to put their names out there and stand up for their views!
   The pinched (probably illegally) our Council photos without permission, and - looking at their expensive website as well - are using them as part of a personal attack on all Hamilton City Councillors.
   Its not as big as the Banksie/Dotcom saga, but is actually more sneaky and cowardly. 
   I say to the perpetrators - have the courage of your convictions; come clean, fess up - be prepared to debate the issues with me and other Councillors in public. Stop hiding under those anonymous skirts!
   Various crowds have been suggested as the instigators: David Braithwaite, Property Council, Margaret Evans, Citizens & Ratepayers - which of you is it?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Council's Floodgate debacle - can we learn some lessons?

   Of 28,000 letters sent to Hamilton ratepayers warning their property was a 'flood risk', it seems that well over half were in reality incorrect and should never have been sent; and all lacked the detail needed to substantiate the Council claims. As a result of the letters, hundreds if not thousands of ratepayers have been worried and upset unnecessarily. To add insult to injury, another 450 letters were sent only 5 days later warning ratepayers in the eastern suburbs that their properties were 'affected' by nearby high voltage powerlines and would have new restrictions placed on them - again without details. Neither of these letters were seen by elected members in advance.
   Why have these debacles occurred? And what have we learnt from them?
   Hamilton City Council's elected members have been focussing so much on a 'pure' governance model taken from the pages of the corporate structure handbook, that we have forgotten that we live in a real world where staff and management do not know everything, but where Councillors and Mayors are elected for their knowledge of the real world, and their experience (which in many cases is greater than that of staff, in my humble opinion).
   We no longer have specialist Council committees dealing with Transport, Infrastructure, Planning, Parks & Gardens, etc, but have gone to the corporate model of 'Strategy & Planning', 'Operations & Performance' and 'Finance & Project Monitoring' - all fine-sounding titles, but all in reality meaning elected Councillors are kept miles away from the details of Council's operations until far too late.
   We over-reacted after the V8's fiasco by chucking the baby out with the bathwater. We always had a Finance Committee, but it hadn't been given complete information, and hadn't sought it until too late. We have set up an Audit & Risk Committee now which is a useful 'check & balance' tool, but again not something that will automatically spot key missing components until well down the track.
   In a Council like ours, with high management turnover, the collected institutional knowledge of Councillors is  greater than that of management, and of many staff in key positions - but is frequently undervalued by the current 'leadership'.
   Some Councillors are suggesting that by giving the new CEO and his management all the day to day power we have taken our eyes off the ball, leaving elected members 'at the mercy of someone's incompetence' as one put it to me.
   Staff have technical training and some (but not complete) technical knowledge - that does NOT translate automatically into them getting everything right, and there is no amount you can pay them to guarantee 'completely right'. We should not put them in the position of being assumed to be always right - so the sooner we reinstate the checks and balances of the previous governance structure, the better - in my opinion. The sooner the whole Council starts acting like a partnership - staff and elected members, each with their own complementary roles - also the better.
   Part of the solution is to return to more specialist oversight of key operational areas of Council - where the big bucks are being spent, and the big problems could occur - we need a Transport/Infrastructure Committee, a Community Services Committee - and we especially need a Planning Committee where District Plans, and Structure Planning for new areas get the attention they deserve from those elected to be responsible. These will complement the current necessary Finance and Audit & Risk Committees, which should be retained.