New accountability for mayors

KEITH MARSHALL
Last updated 13:39 12/06/2013

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New law changes passed at the end of last year created some major changes ahead for local government.

One of the most important changes, in my view, arises from legally and politically empowering mayors to do the job we expect of them. And, along with that legal empowerment comes some genuine public accountability to perform.

After the coming election, mayors nationwide gain new powers. A mayor will be able to legally appoint their own deputy mayor, appoint all committee chairs and determine the structure of council committees, including which elected councillors are appointed on to those. The legal power to decide their own political teams, structures and processes means that mayors will gain a huge level of political control over councils that they currently do not legally have.

Adding to this direct political control, mayors from the next election onward will also legally be personally responsible for driving the setting of council plans and budgets. This, alone, is a huge change.

Indeed, it may be surprising to learn that currently mayors around the country have no real substantive legal powers - largely the current legal role is one of a "first citizen" and in chairing meetings of the elected council.

Mayors, currently, do not have the legal authority to choose their own political teams nor structures, they do not determine council agendas and nor do they drive council budgets or plans. Right now, those decisions are made by the whole of the elected council and in those decisions, as in all others, mayors have just one vote at the council table, the same as all councillors.

In some ways being a mayor under the current law is a potentially thankless task - one in which they are the public face of the council, and get to be "blamed" for any and all decisions made by the elected council whether or not they personally supported or voted against those decisions.

On the other hand, the current situation also makes it very difficult for us voters to hold our current mayors, and councillors, individually accountable for the decision-making of the whole of the elected council (and the subject of a future column).

In the future, just what and how issues are dealt with will be determined by the mayors themselves; maybe in conjunction with their councillor supporters, or perhaps sometimes even just off their own cognisance.

All decisions of the council will be directly influenced by the mayor through the exercise of their new powers. This is very real political power never before seen in local government in New Zealand - something much more akin to the "presidential" type of mayor as seen in the United States.

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Accordingly, at the next council elections, whoever we elect as mayors of TDC and NCC will have the legal ability to carry out any election promises they may have made. Any mayoral candidate can set out a vision for us and, unlike at any other time in the past, be in a position to bring that vision into reality if they become mayor. This is a new legal environment for local government.

So what? Well, for one thing, the new law change means that mayors (and their councillor supporters who the mayor will appoint to key roles) will now be more obviously accountable for all decisions. Along with the ability/responsibility to make things happen (via legal powers) goes some true accountability.

No longer will an elected mayor be able to say that it was the council, rather than them, that put up the rates by x-percent or made whatever decision or put forward such-and-such a plan. Nor will they be able to deflect things on to "council staff" or the "bureaucracy".

In turn, there are some checks-and-balances included in the new laws. An elected council can "revolt" and vote down a proposal from the mayor. Given their new legal powers, a mayor publicly unable to make progress with their own plans is also one who is likely to lack the leadership qualities needed to be a mayor.

After all, it is the mayor who decides what roles the various elected councillors have and can also remove councillors from those roles - so any "revolt" from elected councillors against their mayor will be extremely transparent to us, be a good window into that mayor's capabilities and also a direct reflection on their performance. The new laws also allow for central government to directly intervene in councils should issues arise; something that is not generally possible right now.

Which mayors under the new regime are going to want this to happen?

None probably, due to the fact it will reflect on them personally.

The mere possibility of such a public intervention will heighten the need for better performance around the elected council table, whether or not any such intervention actually happens.

With these checks-and-balances in place, the new mayoral powers do not provide a completely free-hand nor a dictatorship - but, in practice, the new powers do mean a mayor with any leadership ability or talent will definitely be able to carry out their election promises.

Given the extent of the new legal powers, mayors will certainly have few excuses for not being able to do so.

Accordingly, mayors will now be individually accountable as never before. They, in turn, will need to demand good performance from their own political appointees otherwise it will directly reflect (and badly) on their own judgment.

This also means that we probably need to pressure our mayoral candidates over coming months to be much more transparent about their actual election promises: to be very clear about what they will, or won't, do if we elect them. In that way, we will be able to judge them on their actual results.

  • Keith Marshall is a company director and the former Nelson City Council chief executive. Previously, he has owned Thrifty Rental Cars NZ, managed the last nationwide health reforms and participated in the NZ-China FTA negotiations.

- Nelson

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