Marryatt's big gesture, with bigger implications

Last updated 05:00 10/11/2012

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OPINION: There's never much breathing space between one controversy and the next erupting out of the Christchurch City Council.

The most recent brouhaha, which is still gaining momentum and sucking in increasing levels of outrage, concerns extra paid holidays seemingly granted on a whim by council boss Tony Marryatt to some 2000 full and part-time staff. For them, Christmas has come early.

Marryatt appears to have acted unilaterally in giving employees one extra day of paid leave a month for the next 11 months. He justifies the move by saying staff are stressed and tired and need the extra time off, and he encourages them to get out of Christchurch for long weekends to recharge their batteries.

City councillors knew nothing of Marryatt's largesse. They have expressed strong concerns at being kept in the dark about a policy matter that has significant financial implications at a time when the council's coffers are already under pressure.

Cr Helen Broughton, the chairwoman of the council's corporate and financial committee, also makes the point that the first she knew of it was through reading it in this newspaper. That is not a new complaint from elected representatives.

Business leaders, through the Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce, are gobsmacked at the idea. Among their chief concerns are the precedent it sets for other organisations, that it is a one-size-fits-all move when extra leave would be better negotiated with individuals, and that it will cost ratepayers between $4 million and $6m in lost productivity.

One way of looking at Marryatt's gift to his staff - who are as tired and stressed, and personally affected, by post-quake Christchurch as other city workers - is to view it as a kind and generous act.

Like all chief executives, he has a professional and ethical obligation to look after and support his employees. His gesture was undoubtedly made in this spirit and with the best of intentions, but in considering the welfare of council workers he may not have thought through all the ramifications of the offer.

If you take off the rose-tinted glasses, the scheme appears ill-conceived and naive. It also makes the council fair game for those who believe it must be over-staffed. It is always easy to be generous with other people's cash, in this case ratepayers' money.

This is Marryatt in "shorts and jandals" mode. It is another example of him seemingly being out-of-touch with the sentiment of the city beyond civic headquarters and plays into the hands of those already exasperated with his plying a single-minded path. "He's done it again," they say.

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Now it seems his altruism may have landed him in big trouble. Some councillors have decided they will lay a formal complaint with the subcommittee that monitors his performance, saying their blindsiding on the move breaches the no-surprises rule between the chief executive and elected members.

One of the most emphatic criticisms made of the council under Marryatt in this year's damning communications review was that in some aspects, it operated almost without regard to external forces. In response, promises were made to rid the council of its fortress mentality. Obviously, given that the additional leave plan became common knowledge only because it was published in The Press, it is still fortress-as-usual.

Ratepayers are understandably angry. They want to know which platform the gravy train leaves from. There are also suggestions from some that perhaps they should enjoy a one-day rates holiday every month for the next 11 months.

This imbroglio is classic Marryatt. It may have been developed with the best will in the world to support staff, but the consequences were either not considered, or thought about and ignored. One wonders what advice Marryatt may have taken before unveiling the scheme.

Overall, this reflects poorly on the city council. The question is, what will Finance Minister Bill English and Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee make of it all?

- © Fairfax NZ News

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