Protesters threaten rates revolt in Christchurch

SAM SACHDEVA
Last updated 05:00 02/02/2012
Daniel Tobin

Thousands of disgruntled people turned out to protest the performance of the Christchurch City Council.

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The organisers of a mass protest against the Christchurch City Council will take further action, including a potential rates revolt, if changes are not made at the troubled organisation.

Police estimated 4000 people gathered outside the council's Hereford St offices yesterday to call for midterm elections and the removal of council chief executive Tony Marryatt.

Protest organiser Peter Lynch said the protesters would give the Government a fortnight to respond to their demands before making further plans.

If no changes were made, further rallies would be held, while there could be a partial "rates revolt" to show dissatisfaction with the council's performance, he said.

Local Government Minister Nick Smith ruled out dismissing Marryatt and said new elections were "highly unlikely".

Police were forced to close nearby streets as the protesters, many bearing homemade signs, spilled on to the road and chanted for the removal of Marryatt and Mayor Bob Parker.

The protest was organised after the council announced in December that Marryatt had been awarded a $68,000 pay rise.

Organisers decided to continue with the protest after Marryatt turned down the pay rise last week, saying the issue had been the catalyst for broader concerns about the council's performance.

Lynch told the crowd that "urgent change" was needed at the council before it was too late for the city.

"Unless we are willing to challenge today what is broken in our democracy, you and I will see more obscene decisions being made by Parker and Marryatt."

The announcement of Marryatt's pay rise had been a "tipping point" for wider concerns about the council's poor performance and lack of transparency, Lynch said.

Prime Minister John Key and Smith needed to remove Marryatt from his role and hold fresh elections at the council for the good of the city, he said.

"We need a new mayor and councillors who understand that unless they have the trust and confidence of the people, there is no democracy," he said.

The Wider Earthquake Communities Action Network chairman, the Rev Mike Coleman, told protesters that Marryatt and Parker had "no understanding" of what residents had been through after the city's earthquakes.

Parker had done an "extremely good job" immediately after the quakes but had failed to unite the council and focus on the city's recovery.

"We need more than a PR person now.

"We need a leader who can unite the city, who can unite the council and who can move forward on the rebuild."

The city needed "good professional leadership with transparency", Coleman said.

Smith said the turnout showed "a high level of both anger and concern" with the council's performance, exacerbated by high stress levels throughout the city.

Calls for the removal of Marryatt overlooked "basic employment law" protecting his position, Smith said.

While the Government could hold new elections, Smith said it was "highly unlikely" to take that approach.

The process would take a significant amount of time and affect the city's recovery, he said.

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There was also no guarantee that new elections would lead to the necessary "culture change" at the organisation.

If the appointment of former Nelson mayor Kerry Marshall as a Crown observer did not resolve the issues at the council, the Government would most likely resort to appointing commissioners, Smith said.

Parker said councillors needed to "get our heads down" and focus on working together for the good of the city.

"We need to have a functioning, working council that gets on with the job."

Concerns about a lack of transparency at the council were a "misperception", he said.

"What decisions are they talking about? I don't believe it's a reality."

He was not concerned about a potential rates revolt, and said people who withheld their rates would face penalty fees. "I don't think it's a very effective method of protest," he said.

HUMOUR PREVAILS

Janice Richard's placard blasted the message "Closed Doors Plus Cronyism = Corruption."

The Waltham nurse said she was worried Christchurch was going down the gurgler.

"Bob is posing, Sutton is silent or been silenced and Marryatt has been a curse. It's time people found their anger," she said.

The crowd was a wide cross-section of people, evidenced by a parade of footwear including shiny black shoes, workboots, running shoes, walkers and sandals.

Retired people and young mothers stood shoulder to shoulder with dignitaries such as Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend and former Christ Church Cathedral dean Peter Beck.

The Wizard reminded the crowd of the "old people" and got his audience chanting "Out! Out! Out! Town clerk! Town clerk! Town clerk!" (a hark back to the golden years before councils had chief executives) and "Election now! Election now!"

The Rev Mike Coleman, with a fresh haircut, was a rousing and rumbustious master of ceremonies - an old-school tub-thumper who knew his crowd and which buttons to push. Repent, resign and renew seemed to be his message.

"He [Tony Marryatt] says he has worked harder than any time in his life," he said as the crowd booed its support.

"I thought he needs to live in your house - no sewerage, no power, no work.

"They [the pay increases] got bigger and bigger and the mess and the arrogance got worse and worse.

"Bob Parker said there has been a mistake. There has been a mistake. What is going on with our city? What is going on with our leadership?

"Bob leaving on Saturday to go to Asia ... John Key, you need to realise Bob is laughing in your face [later it was "spitting in your face"].

"He has got no concern at all about sorting this out. You do not leave a council in absolute turmoil and head overseas for two weeks on a junket."

As a southerly blew the warm air out of the former St Elmo Courts site, people drifted home, but only after a vote of thanks for the police and St John, which provided a vehicle and paramedics to shadow the protest.

- The Press

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