OPINION: Aaron Keown's election to the Christchurch City Council was a surprise. Before last October's poll he had shown an interest in politics and gained some recognition by standing for ACT in a general election, but he did not seem to have the community connections that would ease his way on to the council. In the event, his criticism of the city's establishment meshed productively with voter disenchantment with local body secrecy and he won a seat.
Since then the change has been dramatic. Keown has become a regular supporter of the mayor's establishment bloc around the council table and he has publicly on three times expressed enthusiastic support for Tony Marryatt, the council's chief executive who is under substantial pressure to stand aside from reappointment to his job.
None of that would matter much, other than to reinforce the observation that independent city councillors frequently turn unpredictable. But Keown's fervour is threatening to become expensively disruptive.
Councillors are empowered to appoint the city's CEO but they are obliged to consider the process objectively, giving fair consideration to the attributes of all candidates. Were they to fail in this, their choice could be challenged in court and overthrown. The appointment process would then have to begin again.
Mai Chen, one of the nation's most competent lawyers and a specialist in administrative law, has advised that Keown's presence on the selection panel would give strong grounds for a challenge because it would taint the process; he could be perceived as being biased. In fact, it did not need an expensive lawyer to point that out. Common sense tells us that appointments to public service posts cannot be swayed by politicians.
It is for that reason that another Marryatt partisan, Bob Parker, has stepped aside from the selection. So should Keown – rapidly and with good grace.
His continued refusal to do so stokes the controversy around Marryatt's staying on and thereby does nothing to ensure that the next council CEO – whether Marryatt or anyone else – begins his or her tenure with the confidence of the council and ratepayers.
A legal challenge to the appointment would mean the post would for months be filled by a stand-in and therefore would be weakened just at the time when Christchurch needs strong administrative leadership. A challenge would also potentially make the eventual appointee seem a compromise, a second-best selection.
In normal circumstances, all this would be somewhat theoretical because a court's intervention would be unlikely even if the passed-over candidates had a grouch about the fairness of the process. But normal circumstances do not apply now. Marryatt's reappointment has been strongly opposed by business groups because of what they regard as his inability to co-operate sufficiently with them and his inability to bring Christchurch's divergent interest groups together.
The extraordinary way this discontent was expressed, by way of an explicitly worded letter to the mayor from two of business' leading figures, and now an undertaking to challenge if necessary, show that any weakness in the reappointment of Marryatt will be pounced on. The quake-recovering city does not need such disruption, and Keown is in a position to minimise the chance of it happening.
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