Richard Swainson: Business as usual not good enough

It's been a rough couple of weeks at the Hamilton City Council.
MARK TAYLOR/FAIRFAX NZ

It's been a rough couple of weeks at the Hamilton City Council.

OPINION: If you are one of the 8.74 percent of Hamiltonians who voted for Andrew King in last year's local body elections, how are you feeling about his performance to date? Mayor King's suggestion that a $25 charge be levied on out-of-town visitors to the themed portion of the Hamilton Gardens was what we might have expected from a politician who has made much of his business acumen and displayed little appreciation of the arts. So far so good.

King's bombshell announcement last week endorsing a proposal for a 12 percent increase in rates falls into a different category. We should preface any discussion of the issue by reminding ourselves that long-suffering Hamilton property owners are already expected to find extra dollars to cover another 3.8 percent rates increase, a charge that has become something of an annual tradition. King's cash grab would be 12 percent on top of that.

How does King reconcile his parsimonious statements whilst a candidate for the office of mayor with his tax-and-spend attitude when, Trump-like, he found himself actually elected? If a quotation in the Waikato Times is to be believed, the answer has something to do with intestinal fortitude. Mr King states that the rates rise "is about us having guts". We must be thankful that our civic leader's metaphor did not reference body parts further south. Whether you call it cojones or not, though, the figurative point is pretty much the same. Despite all evidence to the contrary during the election itself and in the months leading up to last week's crucial annual plan meeting, Hamilton is facing a fiscal crisis and it needs strong, macho leadership, politicians with balls enough to pass charges directly onto the poor folk who elected them. Mr King has the guts – or the balls – to make the hard call. Bravo!

Hamilton City Council chief executive Richard Briggs.
CHRISTEL YARDLEY/FAIRFAX NZ

Hamilton City Council chief executive Richard Briggs.

Of course, there is another way of looking at things. It is the first job of a competent leader to question the advice he or she is given. Politicians do not draw their generous salaries for merely endorsing the decisions of bureaucrats. They are the ones supposedly in charge. The system depends on their asking the right questions and, in turn, being given full and accurate answers.

When Mr King was confronted with what effectively amounted to a fait accompli by Hamilton City Council chief executive Richard Briggs, his first response should have been to ask how this state of affairs has come to pass. Councillor Geoff Taylor, an accomplished wordsmith, branded Briggs' tax-or-perish ultimatum a "doomsday scenario". Paula Southgate, another new to the city council table, put things in a nutshell: "If business as usual is about gouging the ratepayer in this way at the twelfth hour, then we need to look again in detail at the way we run this business."

One of the questions that could be legitimately asked about the council's "business as usual" pertains to top-end staff salaries. Last year, 20 months into the job, Mr Briggs was given a $50,000 raise. At the time, Councillor Garry Mallett, otherwise an opponent of any extraneous council spending, was said to be "comfortable" with Briggs' raise, stating that "you have to take into consideration the size of the organisation and the job expectation".

Hamilton Mayor Andrew King's proposal for a 12 percent rates increase was voted down by councillors.
CHRISTEL YARDLEY/FAIRFAX NZ

Hamilton Mayor Andrew King's proposal for a 12 percent rates increase was voted down by councillors.

A prime expectation of a chief executive would be to communicate to his political masters in a clear and consistent fashion. Judging by the response of councillors at meetings last Tuesday and Thursday, Mr Briggs has spectacularly failed in this regard. Not only were Mr Taylor and Ms Southgate blindsided, but Councillor Angela O'Leary, a veteran local body politician, claimed Mr Briggs' gloomy scenario was "at odds with everything she knew about the council's financial status".

If salary bonuses and increases are based on meeting performance goals, then it follows logically that if you fall short of these goals, you should either be sacked or stripped of earnings. Perhaps dispensing with Mr Briggs' services altogether would come close to shooting the messenger, but given the dire straits in which he claims we find ourselves, it surely would not be out of place to ask him to give the $50,000 back.

Another potential source of funds for cash-strapped Hamilton is the mayor himself. Mr King cost ratepayers $500,000 in legal fees when his business A&A King Trust challenged its district plan. If the city is so hard up, let Mr King replenish the coffers with a donation of half a million dollars.

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 - Stuff

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