Extra leave 'biggest council controversy'

Last updated 05:00 17/11/2012

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OPINION: First the revelation, then the ruckus, finally the reasoning. In time-honoured Christchurch City Council fashion, it has taken more than a week for the rationale to come out, this time over the contentious decision to grant staff extra leave.

The council's chief executive, Tony Marryatt, must have known his latest in-house scheme was akin to a bulging keg of gunpowder poised to explode across the city.

The fuse was lit when it became known he had seemingly unilaterally granted nearly 2000 full and part-time employees one additional day of leave each month for the next 11 months.

While Marryatt clearly had the best of intentions in doing this, and was acting as a generous and supportive chief executive to a workforce as much affected by earthquake stress as the remainder of Christchurch, he appeared, again, to have miscalculated the likely public response.

Either that, or he did consider it and carried on regardless.

Unfortunately, in doing so he played right into his adversaries' hands. Disaffected and angry residents were biding their time waiting for the next manoeuvre that might suggest he was playing fast and loose with their hard-earned rates money.

City councillors, who were as much in the dark about it as anyone else beyond council headquarters, were outraged and threatened to complain. Business leaders considered it nothing less than a scandal that would set dangerous precedents for other employers in the region.

All of this, of course, played out through the lens of the media. It became the biggest council controversy since it was revealed Marryatt had taken a ratepayer-funded personal grievance case against councillors for what were believed to be public comments made after his $68,000 pay rise before Christmas last year.

The fallout continues from that pay rise, which led 4000 people to march on the civic offices and call for him to be sacked, as does the subsequent evasiveness about whether he will actually pay back $26,000 of it.

The extra-leave fiasco has rumbled on all week. Attacks from business groups, through the Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce, have become increasingly strident, reaching a head with the call on Tuesday from its chief executive Peter Townsend for a full and detailed inquiry.

On behalf of his members, Townsend wants the real costs of the leave scheme calculated - they were earlier estimated at between $4 million and $6m in lost productivity - and also questions whether there may have been breaches of delegated authority, saying if there were they should be identified and addressed.

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In reply, and to his credit, Marryatt has finally moved to silence the baying hounds. In an attempt to cut through the veil of disapproval surrounding him, he has explained it was a decision made by him and his executive team to address the intensifying stress levels of council workers.

He said staff turnover and the use of sick leave had risen this year, and there had also been a five-fold increase in the use of internal counselling services. Marryatt outlined that the decision to introduce the extra leave was a way of slowing and stopping burnout among staff, who play an essential part in rebuilding Christchurch.

Better late than never, Marryatt has now laid the facts on the table for others to judge.

This is precisely the sort of transparency Christchurch ratepayers deserve to see more of from council. Conceivably, if this information had come out earlier it might have dampened down that keg of gunpowder and the subsequent criticism would have been far reduced.

Given Marryatt's efforts to assuage his vociferous critics, the business leaders who have clearly been targeting him and actively moving to kick him out could learn something themselves and turn over a new leaf in the interests of pulling together.

Divisions between council and business are not at all helpful at this critical time in the city's history.

- The Press

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