Not all light provides insight

Ian Pottinger
JOHN HAWKINS/FAIRFAX NZ

Ian Pottinger

EDITORIAL: Sometimes we've been full of complaints about the murky way the Invercargill City Council reports its activities

Especially when it gets down to business dealings – which might be more descriptively labelled as none-of-your-business dealings.

Hence the once-famous mutter of discontent from southern ratepayers about dark deeds done in the dark.

But there are plenty of other times, and here's one, when our grizzle nowadays is less an absence of light than the way the council shines it.

READ MORE: Council discusses rates

Information is often presented in microscopic detail. 

Councillors, or the public, wanting things to zoom out to give them a well-lit big picture find instead they're faced with kaleidoscopic confusion. 

You can't deny it's brightly illuminated, but good luck making sense of what you're seeing.

This makes it hard to apply scrutiny. 

Unless, as happened on Tuesday, councillors rise to their feet and insist that, whoah, everything hold still for a moment for clarity's sake.

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In this case it was Cr Ian Pottinger, with support from Cr Karen Arnold, who found a problem on page 88 of the annual plan.

Peer closely and the information was plain stuff, plainly presented.

"Employee benefit expenses" were lined up to rise $580,000 to nearly $24.6 million. Can't put it simpler than that.

But what wasn't plain is where this increase came from and what the merry hell was going on.

Since there was no report putting this into context it, somebody had to ask.

At least somebody did. And when Pottinger rose to ask for a breakdown and explanation, followed by Arnold wanting to know whether consultant fees had gone down, this wasn't information that council professionals at the meeting had at their fingertips.

And when information's not at staff's fingertips, it's that much harder for councillors to get their sticky mitts all over it.

Pottinger and Arnold were effectively told the answers lay in a raft of individual budgets and activity areas, each of which was no doubt faithfully on record. In other words, it's all there in the kaleidoscope.

That is not an encouraging thought, particularly at a time when the city ratepayers are facing an indicated  4.7 per cent rates increase.

At such times, we need the councillors not only to be able to be picky-picky-picky going through the minutiae on our behalf, but also to have a fully functioning awareness of big-picture realities

At least, in this case, a specific report will now be prepared.

And lest that rather puzzling category heading "employee benefit expenses" confuse anyone, it does rope in staff salaries.

Does this mean council staff are technically beneficiaries?

 - Stuff

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