Fuse lit under 'Bob and Tony show'

SAM SACHDEVA
Last updated 11:33 30/01/2012

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Council reporter Sam Sachdeva shares his thoughts on the saga surrounding Christchurch City Council chief executive Tony Marryatt's salary.


 

After weeks of criticism and hundreds of angry letters, Tony Marryatt bowed to the inevitable.

On Friday, the Christchurch City Council's controversial chief executive announced that he was halting the $68,000 pay rise which had infuriated many in the city since it was announced last December.

Announcing the move, Marryatt proclaimed that he was showing "my commitment to Christchurch, to the council and to all our staff", while Mayor Bob Parker heralded his decision as "a gesture of tremendous faith and belief" in the troubled organisation.

Upon further viewing, the gesture appeared less than whole- hearted.

Nestled in the press release announcing the decision was the caveat that Marryatt would withhold the money he had already received, more than $34,000, until councillors could prove their willingness to "work together collegially".

In effect, the chief executive is holding the money over his employers' heads as a good behaviour bond until they meet his as-yet undefined criteria, which one can only presume will involve toeing the party line and keeping public dissent to a minimum.

As distasteful as that may seem, it is not entirely unsurprising when placed in the broader context of how the issue has unfolded.

While a $68,000 pay rise was never going to win many fans, the council handled the saga as poorly as possible, lurching from one public relations fiasco to the next.

Last week, Parker conceded that the move was politically "inept", claiming that councillors were unaware of how much public vitriol the increase would attract.

Yet someone in the council was aware that the pay hike would go down like a cup of cold sick; that much was clear from the decision to release the news late on a Sunday night, days after Marryatt had fled the city for the warmer climes of the Gold Coast and less than a week before Christmas.

If the hope was that Christchurch residents would be too distracted by the impending silly season to pay attention to the news, it backfired spectacularly.

This newspaper was bombarded with letters from angry ratepayers, appalled that the council would approve the "obscene" pay rise at a time of great turmoil for many in the city.

That councillors approved the pay rise during a time of increased scrutiny over executive salaries was careless; to do so while many Christchurch families were struggling to keep a roof over their heads bordered on wilful ignorance.

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In a report recommending the increase, Parker claimed that Marryatt had "stepped up" since the city's earthquakes, while his defenders around the council table cited his "amazing" performance reviews as justification for the pay rise.

The numbers tell a different tale. Since 2009, the chief executive's performance ratings have declined in all categories bar one.

While Marryatt's staff clearly respect their boss, awarding him high scores across the board, his relationship with some city councillors - his employers - is less sound.

His communication with elected members and key organisations in the city were cited, euphemistically, as "opportunities for development" in his latest performance review.

Worryingly, many of these concerns were also raised in Marryatt's 2010 review, an apparent indication that he has not moved to address the criticism as quickly as some might have hoped.

Upon his return to the city, a jandal-clad Marryatt stoutly defended his pay rise to The Press, refusing to return the money and stating that he had "never worked as hard in my life".

While he eventually changed his tune, the tone-deaf response did little to win the affections of those who have removed barrowloads of silt from their cracked homes for the last 16 months.

The outcry over Marryatt's salary increase and the way it was handled is symptomatic of a wider malaise within the council, and one which has dogged it since Parker first donned the mayoral chains.

During his last term, many critics expressed concerns about the council's lack of transparency and accountability to the public.

The words "Ellerslie" and "Dave Henderson" became shorthand for the council's willingness to make significant decisions behind closed doors without public consultation, as well as the belief that Parker and Marryatt had already decided on an appropriate course of action before the issue reached councillors - the so-called "Bob and Tony show".

It was these concerns which nearly cost Parker a second term, and which propelled the new crop of councillors into office, including many of the mayor's strongest critics.

Parker himself acknowledged the need for greater transparency during his re-election campaign, proclaiming that he had "heard the people of Christchurch".

"People need to know that I get it. I get that we have not taken everyone with us on important issues, and at times people have felt their input did not carry much weight."

Yet those concerns fell on deaf ears after Parker was returned to office, his humility replaced by belligerence in the aftermath of the city's earthquakes.

An independent watchdog's criticism of the council's lack of transparency was a "cheap shot" and a "hatchet job", Parker said, while councillors' allegations of unauthorised staff spending were "pathetic".

More recently, Deputy Mayor Ngaire Button has led a witch-hunt for leakers within the council, claiming they are responsible for many of the issues bedevilling the organisation. Expose the leakers, Button says, and the council will start to mend.

The fact that there have been few genuine leaks, and that much of the "leaked" information should never have been kept from the public in the first place, appears to have been conveniently overlooked.

My colleague Paul Gorman, a senior journalist with more than 20 years' experience reporting on public bodies and councils, wrote of this council that he had "never come across a group so willing to slide into secrecy at the drop of a hat".

These concerns and others will likely come to the fore during an independent review of the council's "communication function", commissioned by Parker and Marryatt in an attempt to quell resentment within the city.

The review, coupled with the return of Marryatt's pay rise, may help to stem the bleeding in the council, but the wound is far from healed.

The organisers of a protest against the pay rise have decided to push ahead, and the turnout at the civic offices this Wednesday will be a very public test of whether his change of heart is too little, too late. In addition, the spectre of government intervention continues to loom over councillors' heads.

At the same time that Marryatt rejected the pay rise, Local Government Minister Nick Smith was announcing the appointment of former Nelson Mayor Kerry Marshall as a Crown observer to oversee the council.

In his role, Marshall will sit in on council meetings and offer "advice and assistance" to councillors, while providing regular reports back to the Government.

Smith said the Government was reluctant to take the "nuclear approach" of appointing commissioners, preferring the lower level of intervention provided by the observer.

However, the minister has made it clear that the nuclear codes will be kept within arm's reach, saying the council had "weeks, not months" to resolve their issues.

As Smith, Parker and countless others have noted, the council's performance will have a significant impact on the city's recovery.

Whether Marryatt and Parker learn from their mistakes, and how quickly they adapt, will determine whether Smith is forced to detonate democracy in Christchurch.

For the city's sake, I hope not - but with this council, the next bombshell never seems far away.

- The Press

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