Double acts in the city

Last updated 09:50 25/02/2012

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The big row over the Christchurch City Council leadership is better understood when set against a broader history of the city's leadership styles. JOHN Mc CRONE investigates.

The recent history of Christchurch could be told as a series of double acts involving Christchurch City Council mayors and their chief executives.

First you have three-term mayor Vicki Buck and Mike Richardson through the 1990s. Then another three termer in Garry Moore and Lesley McTurk through most of the 2000s.

And now a term and a half of the "Bob and Tony show" - the under-fire team of Bob Parker and Tony Marryatt.

The earthquake recovery has certainly turned a harsh spotlight on the current leadership regime. Disaster experts warned it would happen.

After a quake or flood of such magnitude comes the inevitable backlash, the rush to judgment. Those in charge always seem to be getting in the way, never doing enough, so find themselves replaced at the first opportunity.

Many are already gloating, calling Parker and Marryatt dead men walking.

Others say cooler heads will prevail.

Yet what is it that people are actually complaining about - the questions over council culture and strategic direction? And is changing the team at the top likely to make any difference?

Three themes emerge quite quickly out of an examination of the past 25 years:

The tricky, but necessary, relationship between town hall and local business interests.

The battle against suburban sprawl - or the question whether it is even really such an issue.

The shift from a public service to corporate style of city management.

Plus there's the fact that Christchurch has long been among the best governed small cities you could find anywhere.

It may be beating itself up with council table in-fighting and citizen protests at the moment, but the broad foundations of its civic success - as embodied in its planning documents, its institutions, its relationships - still exist there in the background.

The formula for Christchurch as a city is familiar. A planned settlement from its beginning. Always a low wage town, yet set in rich countryside, and so flourishing as a rural service hub, first for a province, today as a gateway to the South Island.

A critical issue is its fast greying population and the need for young blood - for cosmopolitan expansion - to prevent it becoming one giant rest home. But Christchurch has the good bones, the flat land, green spaces and healthy climate, to appeal to young families.

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So put aside the faultlines and swampy ground for a minute; under the right leadership Christchurch knows it has the potential to fly.

What has been the story, then? Maybe it is rosy memory, but the 1990s pairing of Vicki Buck and Mike Richardson is still warmly regarded. It was the era of municipal socialism that won the town its tag of "the People's Republic of Christchurch".

Buck was loud and enthusiastic, just 34 when she was elected the first female mayor, in 1989, with a background both in Labour and the Green movement. Buck then promoted Richardson, a Cambridge University prize-winning town planner, to the city manager job in 1993.

Richardson, who still lives in Rangiora and works as a consultant, confesses he was an academic who had to learn how to be a boss. But he endorsed the view that councils exist to serve and so set about a process of public engagement.

"We basically tore up all our job descriptions and every team in the organisation had to decide who their key customers were, then talk and listen to how they could change what they did to deliver value."

David Close, a councillor and Labour caucus leader at the time, says the council operated very differently in those days. Power was distributed among council sub-committees, so decisions were aired and scrutinised well before they moved up the chain to full council.

The mayor was just one vote around the table - as expected with New Zealand's "weak" mayor, rather than executive mayor, system. The city manager did not take sides, but provided information openly. "It was a collegial approach," says Close. "There was always good discussion with the public and press present, which helped knock the rough edges off proposals."

Suburban sprawl was already an issue. Buck came to power with the amalgamation of 1989, when the whole of Christchurch was brought under a single council.

Richardson says partly this was an attempt to halt the decentralisation happening, because independent boroughs like Riccarton were creating their own rival shopping and office areas.

But then along came the Resource Management Act (RMA) as well, which made it harder for councils to control individual property developers.

"We took a very purist view of how we could manage the effects through our city plan and in hindsight we were wrong," Richardson admits.

However, it was still an age of strong civic investment. Richardson says there was a city- wide programme of building libraries, swimming pools and community centres.

Some of the poorer suburbs in particular benefited. Richardson says Christchurch emphasised the whole city approach with its network of suburban council service centres and community boards as well.

Unlike Auckland or Wellington, which remained divided cities, Christchurch was always able to take a more cohesive view of itself as a town.

Close says Buck and Richardson's time also saw the council build a healthy understanding with the business community.

Key to this was the council's fortunate ownership of city assets like Lyttelton Port, Christchurch City Airport, and the powerlines company.

Christchurch held onto these while others privatised, resulting not just in an annual dividend that kept rates down, but also giving it unusual control over its own destiny.

The council then brought in local business leaders to run the boards of the companies. "After that, the perception of the council really changed," he says. It united the town at a general strategic level.

Close says there is of course a danger in creating too tight a relationship between the town hall and commercial interests - a charmed circle with inside knowledge and influence.

And the council of the day had some prominent figures, like property developer Philip Carter, serving on it. But Close says the open nature of council decisions kept things clean.

So while there is never in fact a golden age, says Close, many in Christchurch do remember a go- ahead council that was also run in transparent fashion, that was focused on its suburban hubs as much as the central city, and which was building a common ground with business interests.

Buck was then followed by another Labour-backed mayor in Garry Moore.

There are conflicting views of Moore, whom some expected to be a one-termer but ended up serving three terms from 1998 to 2007.

Moore was praised for his drive and boldness, yet by the same token was felt to be quick with the ideas, light on the details. And his Labour supporters became unhappy with his "third way" politics, complaining he strayed from his socialist roots in steering the city in a far more corporate direction.

Moore says he felt the general policy groundwork had been laid and it was time for Christchurch to push harder. The central city was also dying and needed urgent attention.

So it was time to pin back the town's ears for action.

Complaining that the old-style council structure lacked the dynamism to turn Christchurch into - his favourite phrase - a boutique world-class city, in 2003 Moore replaced Richardson with a "change manager", Lesley McTurk, as chief executive.

Fresh from reorganisations in the health sector, McTurk swiftly created a more hierarchical organisation with a smaller team of line-managers at the top. The emphasis went from the collective to the individual.

Richardson had said his watchwords were teamwork and creativity. McTurk believed in clearly defined responsibilities and performance targets.

A first result of this corporate makeover was a rapid exodus of experienced staff. Within a couple of years, some 20 of Richardson's 25-strong leadership group had gone.

There were complaints about the loss of institutional knowledge and a sharp change in attitudes as a new breed of "we know best" technocrats took over.

On the other hand, this drive toward professional managers was normal for the time. And Moore argues the council did start to deliver on a more ambitious scale with its plans and projects, such as the Urban Development Strategy and new Art Gallery.

The role of councillors also changed significantly during the Moore-McTurk era.

Moore controversially supported a Local Government Commission move to chop the number of elected members from 24 to 12 - another streamlining of council process.

With fewer councillors, but now all paid a full-time wage, the thought was the job would attract those with the professional skills to act like the board of a company. However, critics say instead it resulted in councillors even more concerned about their re-election prospects.

"The quality deteriorated because it became a good career for people who might struggle to hold down a real job," says one insider.

"The corporate board analogy was always flawed because councillors aren't elected for a balance of their skills. You have to make the best of whomever the ratepayers happen to vote for that year."

A halving of the numbers led to the gradual abandonment of the sub-committee system. The opportunities for public debate shrank and power became further centralised in the hands of the mayor and the chief executive.

McTurk also insisted on a sharp divide between governance and management.

Councillors found themselves no longer permitted to approach council staff directly about concerns - a quiet word to get something done. Communication had to go through proper channels.

Again, the intention was to create a tighter structure. Yet it undercut the role of councillors, and so in turn made the council a step more remote from the public it was meant to serve.

So did the Moore-McTurk regime in fact deliver? It certainly chalked up its successes. But on the big question of inner- city revitalisation, there seemed more talk than results.

Initiative after initiative, such as urban regeneration agencies and design panels, came and went, while the city remained half-occupied.

The Turners and Growers warehouse site in Tuam Street became a symbol of this failure. It was a half city block bought with council money in 2002 with the intention of seeding development in the drabber end of town, but all that eventuated was a plan for an urban winery with bars and serviced apartments attached.

Many commented the last thing the inner city needed was more places to get drunk. Affordable housing and mixed-use offices was what had been promised.

But even the Wellington developer behind the winery project never got round to building it. At the time of the earthquakes, it was still an unsightly gravel car park.

However, there were the excuses. Working against sprawl, against market forces, is tough. And the business community did give Moore and McTurk credit for being accessible, for getting out and talking to the town.

There was also the future promise of public-private partnerships - a development corporation style approach to the inner city - where ratepayer money would work alongside commercial money to make things start to happen.

Process, relationships, direction. Trends were already established well before Parker and Marryatt's time. But history shows the personalities at the top do make a difference. There can be abrupt changes in style and emphasis.

In 2006, within a week of each other, came a pair of surprise announcements. First Moore said he would not stand for a fourth term.

The reports were that friction between Moore and his Labour backers had reached breaking point.

Also Parker - riding high in the popularity stakes having come across with the city's amalgamation with Banks Peninsula - had indicated he would be going next for the Christchurch mayoralty. Moore could see which way the wind was blowing.

Then McTurk revealed she was leaving to run the government department, Housing New Zealand - a natural step up for her.

The hunt for a new chief executive was on. In May 2007, Marryatt arrived from Hamilton City Council. Five months later, Parker comfortably won the mayoralty election.

Marryatt alongside Parker looked a promising duo. Marryatt was hired because of his reputation as a fixer, the kind of chief executive to take over a restructured council with a heap of plans and get those plans moving.

And no-one doubts Parker's exceptional skills as a front man and crowd controller - exactly the type you would want to chair a meeting or represent your city.

So what went wrong? Many are eager to offer an opinion, even if few want to be quoted.

The general feeling is that unlike Moore and McTurk, Parker and Marryatt are both quite isolated by nature. They have not been good at getting out and connecting.

Instead, they have fallen back too easily on the argument that Christchurch has already decided its strategy and so their job is to get on with its implementation.

Isolation can lead to bad judgments. And observers also note that Marryatt is unusual for a council boss in that he is not just a dull corporate manager. He has a strong wheeler-dealer streak to his personality, a liking for bringing propositions to the council table.

"He just loves the cut and thrust of it," says one who has known Marryatt for many years.

Others agree, saying too often choices are presented to councillors in a way that only allows them to say yes. There is always some reason for urgency, and some dire consequence if the preferred option is not adopted.

What is public record is that Parker and Marryatt pushed through a series of major decisions which, one by one, managed to damage their relationships with every imaginable sector of the town.

First there was the decision to lease new civic offices in Hereford Street, a $113 million deal with Ngai Tahu that immediately confirmed some people's fears about a lavish spending council.

Then the November 2007 choice to buy the naming rights to Auckland's Ellerslie Flower Show for an undisclosed sum, later revealed to be $3m - another apparently carefree use of ratepayer money that caused the chorus of "I told you so" to grow.

In April 2008, attempts to jack the rents on Christchurch social housing a stinging 24 per cent put Parker and Marryatt off-side with any remaining Left-wing support. The jibes about "Sideshow Bob" and "the Bob and Tony Show" gathered pace.

Then there was the August 2008 blunder over the Henderson properties that lost the respect of the town's business community. It is hard to underestimate how damaging this was.

It was yet another hastily presented deal. Marryatt once more stressed the need for a quick decision and no time for public consultation and councillors agreed to buy five inner-city properties for $17m from failing property developer Dave Henderson.

The council did not dally for independent valuations. It did not wait to pick up the properties for a song.

"Just a few calls to other property owners and the council could have got better advice on what to do," says one developer. Inept, naive, too cosy, was the business community's judgment. And it soured relations from then on.

In June 2009, there was the debacle over plans for a $24m Conservatorium of Music to bring the university back to the Arts Centre in the central city. This time it was the powerful heritage lobby - old school Christchurch - who would not forgive.

Each of these decisions were probably defensible on their merits. However, the feeling is that Parker and Marryatt simply failed to get the right people on board before they made their moves. And in so doing they also missed the opportunity to knock the rougher edges off what they had in mind.

Thus long before the earthquakes, a lot of bridges had been burned. Indeed, the polls heading into the 2010 elections said Parker would have been out after just a single term if the September 4 shake had not given him an unexpected platform on which to shine.

With Parker re-elected, the attention then turned on Marryatt once his foes in the business community realised his five-year contract was coming up for renewal, making him the now vulnerable one.

It has to be said that many people appear puzzled by the levels of hostility that have been expressed.

Parker is still a terrific ambassador for Christchurch. Marryatt likewise seems the kind of energetic force an ambitious city wants, not an asset to be tossed away lightly.

And quite a few admit their personal dealings with Marryatt have been quite different from the public perception, though others add they cannot really give a view "because we never see him around town - he doesn't get out to meet people".

The summary anyway appears to be that the relationship failures have told. As have the continued complaints about process.

But since the earthquakes, especially, there has also emerged a new questioning of the council's whole strategic direction.

Christchurch was signed up to the need to revitalise its central business district (CBD). It was going to be expensive, it was going to be a struggle, but the long-term logic - the success of other examples like Wellington, Melbourne and Sydney - was clear.

Christchurch has to offer a world-class proposition to immigrants and tourists, as well as to its own young people if it is to hold on to them.

Yet following the quakes, some are asking whether the inner city has turned into an obsession. Perhaps the correct recipe for Christchurch is instead to spread out as a series of well-serviced suburban hubs, a relaxed patchwork of village living.

"Maybe we should be comparing ourselves with Newcastle and Wollongong, not Sydney and Melbourne," argues one former city planner.

"We are a low-income city aspiring to play in the big league when really our economy is still based on being a rural service town. We should at least be having a conversation about it."

It would be a brave mayor or chief executive who would now suggest changing tack. And the ready answer is Christchurch is smart enough to do both its inner city and suburbs well.

However, strategic direction has now become another big reason why there are those saying Parker and Marryatt must go. Three strikes and you are out? Again, cooler heads say the city is simply beating itself up in search of scapegoats at the moment.

In terms of process, relationships and direction, many other cities would be pleased to be doing half as well as Christchurch.

Close, no fan of Parker and Marryatt, argues the fault lies as much with councillors if they have allowed themselves to be dominated. He says they probably also offer the obvious solution.

"Bob Parker has been elected by the people and should serve his three years. Tony Marryatt has been reappointed by the city council and he should serve out his term.

"I think the answer lies in the councillors starting to exercise their judgment in an independent manner, based on good information, and refusing to allow themselves to be pushed into positions," Close says.

The councillors have won some victories, such as their demand for two earthquake recovery meetings each month. Marryatt has been forced into public acts of contrition.

And the Government has put in an observer, former Nelson mayor Kerry Marshall, as a wise old head to help fix the democratic process from the inside. A crucial report from him is expected this coming week.

So learn and move forward, advises Close. The next local government elections will swing around soon enough.

And history tells us there is always another double act around the corner.

- The Press

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