Is the tail or the dog in charge at Wellington City Council?

Wellington City Council chief executive Kevin Lavery.

Wellington City Council chief executive Kevin Lavery.

OPINION: What is going on at the Wellington City Council? Three councillors have a meeting with some senior council officers over the Island Bay cycleway and the next thing you know there are allegations from councillors of a $2 million overspend followed by angry denials from council staff.

Who was being liberal with the truth? Is there a war brewing between elected councillors and salaried officials?

Before that skirmish, while most councillors were enjoying a well-earned break in January, they were summoned to a special 'confidential workshop' to learn all about a new secret squirrel deal that had been stitched up with Singapore Airlines to fly from Wellington to Singapore via the vibrant metropolis of Canberra.

Had this secret deal been discussed at the council table? Of course not, it was too commercially sensitive. There seems to be a view in the corporate sector that democracy too often just gets in the way of business.

Councillors were apparently sworn to secrecy about the deal by council chief executive Kevin Lavery and deputy mayor Justin Lester, who had helped broker the deal, and told that the whole thing would be confirmed in a couple of hours.

What wasn't mentioned so explicitly was that up to $9 million of ratepayers' money had been earmarked to be spent to subsidise the multinational airline. Little wonder that someone leaked this information.

Lavery was furious, as was Singapore Airlines. And who can blame them? Here they were trumpeting a deal that proved what a hot, commercially viable destination Wellington is yet it couldn't be cobbled together without a ratepayer subsidy.

Did the airport, of which the council owns a third, also sweeten the deal with landing charge reductions? Free sevens tickets? You and I, and most of the councillors, will never know.

I hope Lavery tracks down whoever leaked the information. That way, if it is a councillor, I can make sure I vote for them next election. But this and other incidents do make me wonder if the administrative tail of the council is wagging the elected dog?

Take the recent CallActive debacle where $300,000 of ratepayers' money was given as an incentive (see Singapore Airlines) to the Australian company to bring their business here.

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I have less of a problem with councillors throwing ratepayers' money at businesses as I can vote against them at the next election if I wish. But why does non-elected Lavery have a vote on the four-person panel that decided to fund CallActive? Wag, wag.

Then there's the Living Wage. Before the council voted, Lavery passionately warned the council of the legal ramifications of adopting it – that they could risk being sued.

Though the council faces legal action from the Chamber of Commerce there is an alternative view that the council has a good chance of winning any case as the Local Government Act has never really been tested.

But Lavery seemed to only present one side of the story. Surely a CEO should present both sides of an argument and let the elected officials decide? Wag, wag.

After accusations that the council did little in its last term, 'action' seems to be the current council buzzword. In a January email to councillors and staff Lavery wrote that in the coming year "we will sharpen our focus with the Annual Plan, which will be adopted by Councillors in June.

"Specifically, I hope to make real progress on the Film Museum and Convention Centre, the airport runway extension and the establishment of an Urban Development Agency."

Wait a minute. "I hope to make real progress"? Who's the mayor of this town? Wag, wag, ruff, ruff!

The airport runway extension is a controversial issue. It has no central government and only tentative regional support.

Many councillors could argue that the best "real progress" Lavery could make is to prevent the council from throwing $90 million of ratepayers' money to a very profitable private company.

Let's hope our councillors "grow a set", as blogger Ian Apperley recently described it, and that our elected officials start telling their salaried staff to heel, sit and stay on their command and not the other way around.

 - The Dominion Post


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