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.