They say he who pays the piper calls the tune. The so-called independent review - paid for by the regional council and largely penned by council staffers - was tainted from the start.
While the panel's recommendation to hand all power and responsibilities of any substance to the regional council was never in doubt, there were two surprises for me in their report.
The first was how the report displayed a startling lack of comprehension of the framework of local government and how it fits within the national context.
The second was the disappointing lack of serious economic analysis in any of the report's 200 pages, give so much hinges on claimed efficiencies in governance.
Comprehension of local government
While much media attention has focused on the ridiculous lord mayor proposal, there are more important failings in the report.
Four year terms and three term limits should be outside the scope of this review. Both need investigation and debate at a national level, and in the context of parliamentary representation arrangements. Four year terms were recently rejected by New Zealanders at referendum. It is simply inappropriate to do as the panel suggests and re-write the local government framework just for Wellington region, and expect this to happily co-exist alongside three year terms elsewhere and for Parliament.
A general lack of understanding of local government is evident throughout the document. A good illustration of this is the panel's recommendations on local vs regional activities. For some reason the panel believes that the operation and maintenance of the roading network can be best performed by the regional council, while footpaths and streetlighting are best dealt with by the local boards - or councils. What a nightmare to co-ordinate and administer. And this is meant to make things better!
The overhyped obsession with 'who speaks for Wellington' is ridiculous. This is clutching at straws if this is the best argument advanced for the proposals. Why would you do major restructuring of billions in assets and activities and thousands of employees, just on the back of a notion that someone needs to speak for wellington? Crazy.
And on that note, if wanting the region to be taken seriously was the key driver, why on earth would you come up with the laughable proposal for 'Lord Mayor'.
Lack of credible analysis
In my view, the reports biggest shortcoming is its lack of any serious attempt at economic analysis of the efficiencies of scale for various council activities. Considering this is supposed to be a primary concern of business and employer groups, one would have expected the report to contain such analysis.
Instead the report takes a stab in the dark based on the assumption that Auckland's assumption is reasonable. An assumption based on an assumption is a poor substitute for good research and analysis. Note the 'assumed' savings work out to an average across the region of around 17 cents per person per day.
The report's proposal appears to be no more than a stealth-grab by the regional council of all the property, assets and infrastructure of local councils in the region. The grand vision sees local councils hollowed out with a small spending allowance - glorified community boards in effect.
The bottom line for any reorganisation is that it should deliver effective and efficient local governance for our communities in the region. The regional council's 'independent' panel has failed to deliver on either count, and instead delivered WRC a self-serving blue-print for appropriating local government assets and functions in the region.
The irony is the WRC proposal is probably the least likely of the options to deliver efficiencies in the region, because the WRC are so poor at running things.
The WRC has an appalling track history of late. It has mismanaged its role in the region for flood protection and has contributed to river degradation. Regional transport improvements have been poorly implemented. The 'investment' in Pringle House is a disaster for ratepayers, while the port company continues to morph into a property company at the expense of the Wellington CBD, delivering lacklustre financial returns along the way. We are now lumbered with the regional council with the country's highest rates per capita. Giving it more to do is not the answer. Better to give it less. Better still, get rid of it.
The fact that this report has probably cost the region's ratepayers several hundred thousand dollars doesn't change this conclusion - it only underlines it.
- Roger Styles has 19 years of local Government experience in the region. 14 as a Hutt City Councillor - six of those as deputy Mayor - and five years as an officer of Wellington City Council. He has a degree in economics and a Masters degree in public policy from Victoria University. He is retiring from Hutt City Council at the end of the current council term.
- Hutt News