Snail pace, but change is coming

"It's time to take a snapshot of where we are and what we want"

Last updated 05:00 29/03/2014
Andrew Judd stand
STANDING UP: New Plymouth's mayor Andrew Judd.

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Peter McCormack reckons the new district council is full of it.

Except the New Plymouth man doesn't use "it", preferring a slightly longer, harsher noun sometimes associated with agriculture.

"There was a promise of change but what change has there been but new faces at the trough?" he says.

But then he would. For the last 20 years he's been one of the most caustic, opinionated and prolific letter writers to this paper and much of that opinion has to do with New Plymouth's District Council and its perceived inadequacies, corruptions and failures.

It is hardly surprising then that council's new Mayor Andrew Judd and council with five new faces was going to fall short of the expectation of change he held for it.

Even Mr McCormack would admit that. But he, and everyone else, had special reason to believe this council would be drastically different than its predecessor.

Mr Judd, after all, focused his campaign on change. As did new councillors Len Houwers, Murray Chong and Keith Allum. And in October voters overwhelming opted for change, spectacularly turfing out established and effective councillors and their high profile Mayor Harry Duynhoven in favour of an explosion of new faces with new ideas and big promises of change.

Then everything went silent.

"The general feeling out there is Andrew seems weak. That he comes across as no different," says self-appointed council scrutineer and failed council candidate Jim Lawn of Okato, five months after Judd's landslide victory over Harry Duynhoven.

"It still seems to me the executive are doing the governing and councillors are signing it off. I haven't seen much governance from the councillors. I haven't seen them direct the executive to do anything at all."

The accusation that council staff are largely dictating what councillors "decide" is a complaint almost no council has ever escaped. And it's an easy stone to throw at an institution so complex and maddeningly legislated as a local government council.

It was a stone Mr Houwers often threw before elected but the view from inside is teaching him just how challenging governing a bureaucratic institution like a council is. "You get a sense that the machine goes on. I think it is difficult to get a large team of councillors organised to counter that," he says.

Most recently that council machine dealt with rubbish and in doing so seemed to drive over a money-making idea to recycle food waste that looked to have found favour with a number councillors.

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"At the end of the meeting a number of councillors said ‘why didn't we debate that?' I think the process at these meetings, standing orders and rules, do not necessarily lead to quality decisions," Mr Houwers says.

Those frustrations aside, he says the only thing that really matters for the current council is next year's long term plan, which dictates council's direction for the following decade, and who will lead the council once Barbara McKerrow's chief executive contract is up for renewal in April 2015.

"Everything else, how would I put it, is not that important."

Except there other things that are important and that is whether the egos, intellects and ideas of the councillors can be controlled and channelled in a positive and useful way for their ratepayers, something that was not always achieved in the previous term.

"We have vigorous debate but personalities don't come into it. It's not negative. It's a positive environment," says former Grey Power council watchdog Keith Allum, who has switched sides and now sits as one of the councillors he so relished keeping an eye on just six month ago.

Critical of the last mayor and previous council and, though frustrated like Mr Houwers with the treacle pace decisions are made at, he is full of belief in the district's new mayor and elected officials.

"There is a difference between Andrew and Harry. You know Harry was very defensive and aggressive. This is not Andrew at all.

"I think he wants to work in a co-operative manner. He wants people to work together. He doesn't want public infighting. He's a totally different person from Harry. But it's a very difficult job and he is still finding his way."

So is Mr Allum and the four other brand new councillors and that is much of the reason for some of the council's "silence" and seemingly glacial progress to date. They're a significant part of the decision making process and they're still driving on L plates.

"I'm aware councillors are getting frustrated at the speed at which things are moving but we are going faster than I have ever taken it, particularly around training," Mr Judd says.

Despite the low velocity at which council has moved there has been change, he says, and he has "absolutely" stuck to his campaign promises.

"We are a lot more frugal," and he expects that frugality, that "change", to exhibit in next year's long-term plan.

It will be here that the difference between this council and the last will be seen and that difference will probably begin to form from the recommendations of an upcoming independent internal review of council operations.

With councillors elected on a platform of change and affordability picking who undertakes this audit, the findings will mainly be about how council can cut costs. Already pared close to the bone, this almost certainly means cutting council jobs and services, though it will be couched in terms like efficiency, downsizing, rating stability and common sense.

"This (long-term plan) requires a very early community consultation, right across the board in a different way than has ever been done before," Mr Judd says.

That difference is council's 500 staff will be the first to be consulted and advised of the general direction their councillors want to take, to both get their feedback and ensure they are on board, the Mayor says. Then the community will be consulted extensively on their wants and the consequences of their wants.

Because, just as this year's two per cent rates increase will simply ensure a bigger rates increase next year unless other more significant changes are made in the meantime, Mr Judd wants the community to be aware that trade-offs will have to be made.

This type of conversation will "dovetail" into the culture of frugality, he says.

"It's time to take a snapshot of where we are and what we want."

And though this sounds like something a leader of change must find out, it also sounds like meaningless rhetoric.

With just five months in office, time has yet to reveal which one it is.

- Taranaki Daily News

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