Elected ECan needs thought

This year, a ministerial review to consider the future governance arrangements for Environment Canterbury (ECan) is due to be held. If a report on New Year's Day, quoting some of the region's mayors and a former deputy chairman of ECan, is anything to go by it is no more likely to find consensus on the issue than existed at the time the Government sacked the elected members of the council and appointed commissioners to carry out their functions.

The question of how long the tenure of the appointed commissioners should be does not appear to have been uppermost in the minds of the Government when it got rid of the elected members in March 2010. It promised a return to normal business at the next local body election last year but decided at some point earlier last year to reverse its decision. The earthquakes had intervened in the meantime but the decision was startling nonetheless. While a return to direct elections appeared unlikely, some mixture of directly elected members along with some appointed by the Government would not have been surprising.

That is the method by which district health boards are formed and, it later emerged, it was the method that had been recommended by Dame Margaret Bazley, the highly regarded all-purpose fix-it woman the Government had installed as chair of its commissioners. Most mayors in the region also favoured it. Instead, the Government stuck with the commissioners for another term, promising a review of the situation this year.

The mayors spoken to by The Press this week all prefer a return to a directly elected council, but they also think it should not occur immediately. Their view is scarcely surprising. Many of them were among the strongest critics of the performance of the elected council and had lobbied for its removal. They also believe, however, that the performance of the commissioners has been good and that a return to the status quo as it existed before the elected council's sacking would not be desirable. Former deputy chair woman Jo Kane denounced their view as "extraordinary arrogance" and "showing contempt for democracy". That is unhelpful and an example of the kind of mindless slogan-shouting that induced the Government to step in three years ago.

A return to direct elections is obviously necessary. Bazley is a clever and accomplished woman but her recommendation of a mixture of elected and appointed members, while it has many attractions, would be an unacceptable halfway house. ECan is not a district health board - its responsibilities are far wider and it has the power to set rates, to mention just two things. The question of how the return to direct elections can be engineered therefore requires careful thought. It probably also requires consideration of the whole structure of regional governance in Canterbury.

For although much of the previous ECan's work was sound, a simple return to an elected council at persistent loggerheads with a substantial chunk of its rural constituency and in venomous deadlock around the council table would also be unacceptable.

The Press