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.

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