OPINION: The plea by the Mayor, Bob Parker, to Christchurch city councillors before a secret meeting this week to "trust myself and the chief executive" was almost asking to be greeted with a hollow laugh.
After a year in which trust among councillors and between councillors and upper echelons at the council has been in short supply and on the brink of a secret meeting called just three weeks after the council had been told that its communication at multiple levels is poor, the temptation to cynicism is almost irresistible.
In this case, in the context in which the mayor was speaking, the request appears to have been a reasonable one, but the first reaction to it shows how far the council still has to go in rebuilding the quality that has been so acrimoniously eroded in recent times.
The mayor's appeal for trust this week was made as councillors were beginning a meeting to discuss the financial consequences for the council from the Government's Port Hills zoning decisions. At the moment it appears likely the burden on the council, already facing an array of large extra costs because of the earthquakes, will be around $58 million.
This week's meeting was convened hastily in advance of an announcement from the Government and councillors were given no detailed agenda and told almost nothing of what it was about. Christchurch ratepayers are, of course, intensely interested in anything that may add to the council's costs and some councillors wanted the meeting to be open so that it could be reported on.
In normal circumstances, this would be a reasonable request. The mayor, however, resisted it. When Cr Tim Carter asked how councillors could be expected to decide on whether to open the meeting or not without knowing what it would discuss, the mayor made his plea for trust, saying he would accept full responsibility.
In this instance, the mayor appears to be entitled to the benefit of the doubt. While the issue is plainly a public one, it is also one with a direct impact on individual property owners, some of whom had not at the time of the council meeting been contacted by the Government about decisions that would affect them. Those people did, as the mayor explained, have a right to hear those decisions directly rather than by the roundabout way of a council meeting.
While the decision to opt for secrecy on this occasion may have been defensible, the point made by Cr Glenn Livingstone later that councillors needed to "walk the talk" of greater transparency is in general a valid one.
The independent audit of the council's communications delivered last month reached the damning conclusion that the council was failing in one of its core functions - that of keeping in touch with its constituents - so consistently that it had become part of the organisation's DNA.
The mayor and the council's chief executive, Tony Marryatt, have promised to eliminate this bunker mentality. It will, however, require more than words.
It was not a good start that when councillors held a workshop to discuss the communications audit report, several councillors and the chief executive did not attend, the chief executive because he did not think he would have had any "value to add" to the discussion. The chief executive has promised to be present when the full council discusses the report.
It must be hoped that discussion will lead to some positive steps by the council towards acquiring a new, better mentality about communications.
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