Democracy destroyed by a stroke of whiteout

IN HIS OWN WRITE

GORDON BROWN
Last updated 10:54 22/12/2012

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Our lives and wallets continue to be affected by what others decide is good for us. Both central and local government are full of Those Who Know Best and invariably, the rank and file have to pay.

Now this is not the season to be mean-spirited and pick on Citizen Ross on my left, and his ilk. They are generally well-meaning folk but want to take our choices away. Every time there's a problem - legislate, regulate or ban it altogether.

So on this, the last Saturday before Christmas, I'll ignore Ross and his party-sponsored mantra, wish him well, because he's a nice bloke, and instead concentrate on an issue that I find defies belief.

Let me share this story with you and you decide if you agree with me, that something in the New Plymouth District Council is so fundamentally flawed and morally, if not legally, wrong that alarm bells should be ringing.

A few months ago there was an outcry that the three-year contract to install and maintain the lights at the popular Festival of the Lights in Pukekura Park went to Tawa company MJF Lighting ahead of New Plymouth firm Wells Instrument and Electrical - despite Wells being $26,100 cheaper.

Before you think this is old hat, keep reading. It's not and has sinister overtones.

Councillors generally get plenty of flak for decisions that they make, and fair enough. But they do get a little miffed when they are slammed for decisions they had no input into.

On this occasion, councillors had been briefed informally on the Festival of Lights contract, but only after the decision had already been made by council staff.

It was entirely predictable that there would be a public uproar, and just as predictable that some, if not many, councillors would not be happy.

A group of councillors let it be known, some publicly, some to Mayor Harry Duynhoven, that they were unhappy with the decision and the process that allowed it to happen. Naturally, they asked who made the decision. Sorry, can't tell you, was the response from the mayor and/or chief executive Barbara McKerrow.

OK then, what were the reasons? Again sorry, can't tell you, except in the most general terms. It's fair to say at this stage the councillors were even more unhappy.

Ultimately, after some testy exchanges, some information was grudgingly released to councillors.

Incredibly, vital information was whited out. Quite a lot of it, in fact, leaving councillors a little better off than they were, but not much.

Part of the "whited-out" sections included the names of the three staff members who made the decisions.

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This is arrogance that defies belief. When all is said and done, we elect a mayor and 14 councillors to represent us, the people of New Plymouth.

They are asking on our behalf, but almost unbelievably are being stone- walled by a group of unelected officials who decide they, and they alone, with the exception of the mayor (if they so choose), can be trusted with confidential information.

How dare they.

Can you imagine a large company operating that way, where the board of directors, representing the shareholders, is refused information by the chief executive and senior management because it is 'commercially sensitive'?

In local government there are legal restraints that are unique to that operation, and for good reason.

The distinction between management and governance is a vital one and has to be respected so that political interference is not brought into processes where it should not venture.

But that is not applicable here, or in other instances where it has been abused.

Finally, it's worth noting that Wells never had a complaint in nine years from the council. There is no design component in the contract. If the lights had become "tired" that was the council's problem, not Wells'. Watch now as every attempt is being made to deflect the criticism by providing the best show for years.

Money and resources are being poured into it, heaven knows from which budget.

This is not democracy, this is bureaucracy by stealth, by arrogance and it's all being done with our money by a group of unelected people who know better.

It's time to change this iniquitous system in which councillors are reduced to second-class servants by a self-serving, self-indulged staff who have long forgotten their place.

- Taranaki Daily News

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