OPINION: Some years back, a woman I knew quite well stood for the Hamilton City Council. She was well known in her ward, was elected by a decent margin and took on her new role with enthusiasm.
Council was a second job for her because she already worked full time. She was prepared to put in the hours juggling these commitments because she wanted to make a difference in the city she loved.
She quit after a term; local body politics was not for her. She couldn't make headway on anything – in her view, the city was largely run by the management team and she found the intrigue and infighting too difficult.
I've known a few other people who've had a similar experience, they've done three years and thought, What the hell am I doing here?
But mostly it seems to seep into people's blood. They love it, they put themselves forward term after term. In 2004, I interviewed Ted Armstrong who'd just lost his council seat after 27 years. He'd been nudged out by 48 votes; he'd wanted to do a 10th round and was shattered by the result.
At the moment, though, being a Hamilton City councillor is a fraught business and you'd wonder why anyone would want the responsibility. For the 10 councillors at least who've had the V8s venture fail on their watch, the roar of the crowd has turned ugly.
As councillor Dave Macpherson said recently, "you'd have to have a death wish" to do the job. He and the others have been publicly scorned since last month's Audit New Zealand report into the V8 street race hammered city managers and councillors for their part in the debacle. Audit NZ found inadequacies at all levels and the report is disturbing reading.
A Waikato Times poll taken last week showed a clear majority of city residents want the councillors in question to quit. Fifty-three per cent of respondents wanted them to resign and barely half as many – 27 per cent – thought those responsible should be allowed to stay.
But I think the poll should have asked two extra questions: Did you vote at the last council election? If not, why not?
With a woeful Hamilton voter turnout of 38 per cent last year and 35 per cent at the 2007 election, I suspect many of those polled on the V8s issue would not have taken the trouble to vote.
So I think it's a bit rich when there is so much apathy about local body politics that there are now shrill voices calling for resignations. It's a knee-jerk reaction along the lines of, "something's gone badly wrong, let's boot the bastards out of office and that'll solve the problem". Even though we didn't actually give a toss about the last election.
It's also interesting that a number of the councillors' online critics choose to remain anonymous, so their opinions are of dubious value. And some of the named people who've joined the off-with-their-heads chorus have old scores to settle as well as new ones.
I may be the soldier out of step on this, but I don't believe the city would gain anything from the resignations of those involved. It would cost some valuable people.
That doesn't mean I'm not rattled by what's happened. I feel betrayed even, because like so many others, I bought the V8s hype, thought it would be a good thing for the city. This newspaper liked the V8s, too, and staffers wrote glowingly about its potential benefits. We were particularly proud of winning the event over the heads of Auckland and Wellington; it felt like Hamilton had aced the big boys.
City councillors supported all this. And along with the city managers they trusted, they let it happen without adequate knowledge and scrutiny. In the past couple of weeks, some of them have bluntly described how they got carried along by the euphoria, and I think – bitter pill that it is – we can kind of understand how this occurred. It's messy, the cost overruns are huge. It seems deeply unfair that the council is now looking at making cuts to its arts, culture and gardens infrastructures when the town's sporting events and arenas have had so much spent on them for so long. But there is an opportunity now for the council to ensure that a situation like the V8s meltdown never happens again and that more robust, open and accountable processes are developed at city hall. It is pleasing to know that some of Audit NZ's concerns and recommendations (as outlined in the report) are being addressed.
Some good may come out of bad. And hopefully the city's voters will take more responsibility, too, and bigger numbers will have their say at the next local body election. But I wonder who might be brave enough to put their names forward for a seat at the council table?
- © Fairfax NZ News