Wellington City Council shake-up a ‘missed opportunity’


Some Wellington City councillors feel mayor Andy Foster has divided them further and missed a golden opportunity with his proposed shake-up of the council.

Foster has ignored a recommendation of an independent review into the council’s governance by appointing new committee chair roles himself, rather than through a facilitated process.

He has overlooked pairings from opposite sides of the political spectrum like councillors Nicola Young and Fleur Fitzsimons or councillors Iona Pannett and Sean Rush.

The result of the review was meant to be a clean slate of sorts to reset the way councillors work.

Instead some of them told the Herald that Foster’s handling of the findings has created a “missed opportunity”.

However Foster maintains he has politically balanced his appointments and stressed the need to “get on with it”.

Over the past year the council has been characterised as divided with no obvious working majority to the point Foster decided to bring in a facilitator to help sort things out.

More recently he called in former Local Government New Zealand chief executive Peter Winder to undertake a review of the council saying the public’s belief in their ability as councillors, and as an elected group to govern, was shaken and eroded.

There was always a risk the review’s findings would point the finger back at Foster.

It did in the sense that Winder found Foster to be an ineffective champion for Wellington, which he considered to be an essential role for the mayor.

But the key overall finding was that neither the mayor nor any of the factions on council represented a majority around the table. Instead, majorities have been formed continuously issue by issue.

Winder said this created unpredictability, a lack of clear direction to staff, resulting in wasted time and ambiguity for the city’s external partners as to the council’s position.

He recommended scrapping councillor portfolios and replacing the council’s big decision making committee with four committees.

While the appointment of chairs and deputy chairs for these committees is the prerogative of the mayor, Winder said the council should instead use a facilitated process.

He said this would build an inclusive, all of council approach and again stressed how consensus would be an important symbol to move away from issue-by-issue majority building.

This would act as a much-needed circuit breaker.

Instead, Foster has chosen to decide on those positions himself and in doing so has left two gaping holes on major committees and has disregarded some obvious political pairings.

The current proposal for the Finance and Performance Committee is to have councillor Diane Calvert as chairwoman and councillor Simon Woolf as deputy.

Both ran as independents but are right-leaning in their politics. Money is where the power is and in this case, it’s in the hands of two of Foster’s most loyal colleagues.

The current proposal for the Policy, Planning and Environment Committee is to have councillor Iona Pannett as the chairwoman and councillor Tamatha Paul as deputy.

Pannett is a Green Party councillor and while Paul ran as an independent, her politics are very much left-leaning.

Both want to remove private vehicles from the CBD, for example.

These appointments go against Winder’s recommendation that people from different sides of the political spectrum should be appointed to each committee’s chair and deputy chair positions to encourage consensus building.

The idea behind this is that each committee is politically balanced and the job of the left and the right is to go away and talk to their people to find compromise and agreement.

It would also mean that every councillor would feel they have a person to go to and trust with their interests.

External stakeholders would also benefit from a similar relationship.

It seems difficult to think Wellington Airport would find a friend in Paul or Pannett for instance, especially since Paul was behind the move to pull the plug on a $76 million loan for the airport.

Political balance on these new committees is also key considering councillors are being told to give up their portfolios.

It’s critical they can trust either the chair or deputy chair to wield the amalgamated power of previously held portfolios.

Obvious political pairings have also been overlooked like councillors Nicola Young and Fleur Fitzsimons, who are from opposite sides of the political spectrum but have developed a kind of friendship.

They’ve proven they can work together on some things, an alliance which has mostly formed in the absence of Foster’s ability to build consensus.

Councillors Iona Pannett and Sean Rush also make for an unexpected but workable pairing.

They are like chalk and cheese in many ways but have found ways to work together on issues in the past, or agree to disagree without a toxic undertone.

Once after saying he couldn’t support Pannett’s amendments Rush whispered to her “but I love you” not realising his microphone was still on.

Pannett then referred to Rush as her BFF as she picked apart his amendments.

Foster told the Herald today the issue of who gets what is always fraught.

“You are never going to get a situation where everybody is happy but I have tried to do the best I can having talked through this with every councillor, in several cases on several occasions.

“It’s pretty evident we could keep going around in circles but councillors are anxious to get on with it.”

Foster said he has balanced the left and the right of the council as well as balancing specific knowledge, skills, and interests in particular areas.

He acknowledged that meant not every committee was evenly split politically, noting two were, with one tilting right and one tilting left.

“But overall it’s a balanced packaged.”

Councillor Rush is proposed as chairman of the Infrastructure Committee with councillor Jenny Condie as deputy.

Councillor Jill Day is proposed as chairwoman of the Social, Cultural and Community Services Committee with councillor Young as deputy.

Foster said there was goodwill among councillors when they were given a copy of the draft review report last week.

He doubted the council would make much progress in re-litigating the positions and said it would risk undermining the organisation’s credibility, which was not something they could afford to do.

Unfortunately for Foster, the overall political balance of committees misses the point.

It has to be divvied up in each individual committee to make for inclusive decision making.

With two hugely important committees lacking this balance, Foster risks more of the same instead of a much needed fresh start.

Who got what in the Wellington City Council shake-up

Finance and Performance Committee
Chair – Councillor Diane Calvert
Deputy Chair – Councillor Simon Woolf

Policy, Planning and Environment Committee
Chair – Councillor Iona Pannett
Deputy Chair – Councillor Tamatha Paul

Infrastructure Committee
Chair – Councillor Sean Rush
Deputy Chair – Councillor Jenny Condie

Social, Cultural and Community Services Committee
Chair – Councillor Jill Day
Deputy Chair – Councillor Nicola Young

Annual Plan/LTP Committee
Chair – Councillor Rebecca Matthews
Deputy Chair – Mayor Andy Foster

Regulatory Processes Committee
Chair – Councillor Malcolm Sparrow
Deputy Chair – Councillor Teri O’Neill

CEO Performance and Review Committee
Chair – Mayor Andy Foster
Deputy Chair – Deputy Mayor Sarah Free

Audit and Risk Committee
Chair – independent appointment
Deputy Chair – Councillor Jenny Condie

Grants Subcommittee
Chair – Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons
Deputy Chair – Councillor Laurie Foon.

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