Ripped Apart: A City in Chaos

16:00, Nov 09 2012
Ripped Apart book cover
MAYOR'S WORDS: Ripped Apart - A City in Chaos

A new book, Ripped Apart: A City in Chaos, is Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker's personal story about the earthquakes, the battles his council has faced and and the battles within the council that led it to being dubbed dysfunctional.

In this extract, Parker writes of how he defended city chief executive Tony Marryatt when some councillors turned on him at the time of his employment negotiations. Parker says the leak of his private comment to councillors that he might consider resigning as mayor if they forced Marryatt out was ''an act of treachery''.

Seismic events similar to those that physically ripped apart Christchurch rippled around the council table as well.

Little did I realise, when I cast my eye over councillors attending that  first meeting in 2010 that, before long, the council would be so dysfunctional I would have to call on Government for help to resolve the problems within it.

Controversial issues, inexperience and personalities around the council table created events that, occurring in the wake of a disaster the Prime Minister had described as New Zealand's  "darkest days", were intolerable.

Tony Marryatt
Christchurch City Council boss Tony Marryatt

Much of our city lay in tatters. Thousands of our people  endured unprecedented hardships. Aftershocks continuously  battered our morale. If ever there was a time in New Zealand's  history when we needed to rise above petty political issues and  self interest, this, surely, was it. Unfortunately, it did not happen.

Because of the pressures the earthquake placed on the council to get the city back on its feet, much of the support we should  have provided councillors was overlooked as we concentrated on projects considered more important.

On reflection, this was a mistake.


New councillors were thrown into the roles without proper induction or training. Several had little experience and were  ignorant about the traditions and principles of local body politics. There were factions within the new group, which I  should have identified and dealt with.

The council's executive team of general managers also ignored  them. Because of the pressures involved in mending the city, they seldom attended social events or meetings at which they could mingle with councillors and build relationships.

Quite simply, none of this was a priority, compared to other issues we faced.

The council quickly became politicised.

The very nature of our roles requires the council's chief executive, Tony Marryatt, and I to work closely together. A  minority on the council appeared incapable of understanding  this.

We had created enemies when we changed ground rules about developing land surrounding Christchurch. A campaign to get rid of Tony and I has raged ever since.

Tony's employment contract was due to be renewed in the  middle of 2011. The council had to decide whether to re-employ him. If we did, he was due for a pay increase: He had not received one for two years.

A committee comprising councillors Sue Wells, Barry Corbett, Helen Broughton, Glenn Livingstone, Tim Carter and myself was established to review the chief executive's performance and contract. Independent consultants had reviewed Tony's performance remuneration.

The campaign our enemies waged against us had been effective. Tony and I had both been undermined and there was a whispering campaign to get rid of the chief executive.

I posed a question at the committee's meetings about whether  this was an appropriate time to be considering not renewing Tony's contract. We were in the middle of the biggest disaster faced by any New Zealand council. His team of general managers had performed magnificently during the crisis and, although there was controversy surrounding Tony, I believed his continued involvement was essential for the city's wellbeing.

This was misconstrued as cronyism. It was nothing of the sort. In view of the knowledge and experience Tony had accumulated about the city and its services, I found it inconceivable that  anyone would consider replacing him at this stage with another chief executive.

The threat was compounded by the impact his departure could have on other executives. Some had indicated that if their boss walked, they would too.  It was obvious that his staff liked him. He had made improvements to the team, he had provided certainty, he had promoted good people in the right jobs and he had developed a team of  competent people.

Surveys show that prior to him joining the council in 2007, two out of three staff were considering leaving. Morale had improved considerably during his tenure.

Tony is not a person who wants to front before the public. If he wanted to be that sort of chief executive, I suspect he would  have sought a job in the private sector instead of the 30 years he has devoted to local government. As a result, the public did not  know who he was.

The last thing you want during an emergency is to lose your chief executive. If we lost him, and our general managers, it would take months, probably much longer, to rebuild the knowledge and experience they had accumulated. Given the circumstances, we did not have the luxury of that time available for rebuilding an executive team.

If we dumped him, we would upset our 2500 staff who were already toiling under unprecedented pressures. Many had lost  homes. Others lived in damaged houses and faced stresses similar to those confronting everyone else in Christchurch. They worked long hours and performed at levels beyond the norm.

Staff had come to me and said: ''Look, Bob, if Tony goes, I don't think I'll stay. He's a great boss. I like working with him.

''My wife doesn't want to live in Christchurch, any more; she  wants to go the Gold Coast. We want to get the kids out of the  schools here. We don't want to live in the earthquake place, and all the rest of it.''

Others expressed concern about what was happening among  councillors in regard to Tony. They felt that without Mr Marryatt they would be vulnerable. Therefore, if he left, they, too, would  seek other jobs.

The prospect of breaking up such a vital team would be daunting even in the best times. The predicament in which  Christchurch found itself made the prospect irresponsible.

Given our circumstances, even if Tony's performance had been only mediocre, and I did not believe it had, dismissing him would have  been inappropriate. A wiser approach, if he was not performing,  would be to build support systems around him. I did not believe  this was necessary.

A vigorous, often terse, debate took place in the confines of  the committee room.

I was scheduled to enter hospital after the meeting for an operation on my spine. I was in considerable pain, and exhausted. Before I left, I said that because of the impact the decision could  have on the council if Tony's contract was not renewed, I would have to consider whether I would continue as mayor.

My objective was to emphasise the seriousness of the decision facing us. If they decided against renewing Tony's contract, it would create a situation so detrimental that we would be  unable to deliver all the expertise required for the city's recovery. In those circumstances, I would have to review whether I wanted to continue in a council that could not fulfill its responsibilities.

That was leaked to a newspaper. It could have been disclosed only by somebody attending that meeting.

The newspaper headline the next morning was: Mayor Threatens to Resign if CEO Goes.

I considered the leak an act of treachery. The meeting was  confidential. The public was excluded, and the only way the  information could have got out was through somebody breaking the trust of the others participating. It was also a break with a long-established convention that words uttered during discussions in committee rooms should stay in committee rooms.

It was the first time in my 20 years in local government that  this had happened. Established practice is that even when councillors disagree, or lose a vote, they always leave their disputes in the committee room. Councillors are there to act for the benefit of the greater community, rather than serve their own self-interest. This is a practice followed in every council throughout the country.

Eventually, I was forced to withdraw from the review because it was alleged that I had displayed bias by supporting Tony. I considered the accusation unreasonable, but I was concerned that  if I did not withdraw, the whole decision- making process might be challenged in court.

I did not participate any further and, instead, put all my energy into preparing the central city plan. I had absolutely  nothing further to do with the review, and did not even become involved in interviewing potential candidates.

Councillor Aaron Keown was also forced to withdraw for similar reasons. He fought the allegations in court and won.

I was deeply hurt by the nastiness of the process, and saddened to see established conventions of confidentiality shattered. All councils and businesses, even Parliament, rely on confidential spaces in which they can frankly and vigorously discuss issues in a manner that cannot be done in the open.

My view was that we needed to be able to keep Tony because, if we did not, it would have significant negative consequences for the city. Even if some councillors did not like him, it was not an appropriate time to replace him.

Not everybody in Christchurch business circles fails to appreciate the job Tony has performed for the city. Many have  congratulated him for his ethics and for confronting some  members of the city's establishment. 

Part of our problem was that we do not kow-tow to Christchurch's  inner circle of business people, some of whom, in my view, want to control the city.

We adhered to the Christchurch Urban Development Plan and refused to be coerced away from it. After all, the plan is the will of the public, created after consultation with thousands of citizens for the benefit of the city and its people, rather than for a minority. Despite being threatened and  bullied, Tony has refused to digress from the plan.

Neither Tony nor I are members of that elite business cartel. Tony is not a Cantabrian and, although I was born here, I have never been part of that clique.

The Press