Lobby group challenges observer's role
The Office of the Ombudsmen and the solicitor-general may be dragged into a row over the appointment of a Christchurch City Council official observer.
Lobby group Council Watch wants an investigation of Local Government Minister Nick Smith's move to introduce a Crown observer to oversee the council's performance over the next few weeks.
Former Nelson mayor Kerry Marshall took up his role at yesterday's city council meeting.
Council Watch spokesman Jim Candiliotis told The Press the "invention" of the title reflected the Government's inclination to do what suited it best.
Nowhere in the Local Government Act was there provision for a Crown observer in such circumstances, he said. Instead, the idea came from the Education Act, which provided for observers on the councils of tertiary institutions.
That made the move legally dubious, Candiliotis said.
He said it was "unconstitutional, unlawful or at the very least a blatant interference" in the running of a city.
He asked why Smith was involving himself in the council in the first place.
"Anyone who works with councils understands there are tensions at the councillor level – that is the nature of democracy," Candiliotis said.
"When it comes to misbehaviour, arguments and public spats, the people we elect to Parliament provide a much greater spectacle than those we elect to councils. So why has the minister gone to all this trouble?
"How would the taxpayers of New Zealand feel if [United States President] Barack Obama appointed the American ambassador to sit in on Cabinet meetings at the Beehive?"
Candiliotis has written to the chief ombudsman and the solicitor-general asking them to review the appointment.
A spokesman for Crown Law Office confirmed the letter had been received.
Candiliotis said there had been a lot of interference in local authorities over the past three years.
"Our hope is the minister takes a step back and allows the council to sort its own problems out or else uses the provisions allowed him under the act," he said.
MARSHALL HAS CLOSED TALKS WITH COUNCIL
The Government-appointed observer has met Christchurch City councillors for the first time, behind closed doors.
Former Nelson mayor and marriage counsellor Kerry Marshall spoke to councillors yesterday in his first day as a Crown observer.
Local Government Minister Nick Smith said last week Marshall would monitor the council, sitting in on meetings and sharing his observations with the Government.
The move came after intensifying criticism of the council's performance and calls for Government intervention.
Councillors had initially scheduled yesterday's extraordinary meeting to discuss several matters facing the council, including the interaction between governance and management and an independent review of the council's communication problems.
However, Mayor Bob Parker said the councillors needed to put the matters aside until they had spoken to Marshall in private and determined how they could work together more effectively.
"These are very real, very important issues," he said.
"To simply think we can now brush them aside ... could drive a further wedge into this council."
Parker said the problems within the council had caused "great distress" to elected members and the community, and needed to be resolved as soon as possible.
"We need to put the things that have undermined us behind us and commit to the community that we will do the work we were put here to do," he said.
Councillors resolved to adjourn the meeting for an informal talk with Marshall and address the issues at a later meeting.
After the talk, Parker said he was happy with its outcome.
"It was a very good meeting to build some awareness from the point of view of the Government observer and to get to know each other a bit better."
Parker would not comment on whether he had shared his views on the council's performance.
"These meetings are not designed to feed the media machine; they're designed to get a good outcome for this group of elected officials," he said.
Asked for comment, Marshall said he had "nothing to report".