Robinson report: Breaking rules at regional council

By Reihana Robinson, Geoffrey

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In a blatantly political play for more control, Waikato Regional Council, and its obedient Peter Buckley-led majority faction, has made a dog's breakfast of its own official rulebook.

The attempted power grab and council dust-up occurred at WRC's most recent meeting on October 25.

On the agenda was a rewrite of the council's official code of conduct - a broad outline of functions and responsibilities intended to guide members in dealings with the public, staff and each other.

WRC's code of conduct was last updated in 2007 and has been in need of a fresh coat of paint. Those five years have seen big changes in communications with the rise of social networking and other media tools.

More councillors are putting out more messages to more people. With ethics embarrassments like acceptance of valuable Rugby World Cup tickets and entertainment from corporates, a general refurbishment of councillor rules seemed like a good idea.

But that's only half the story. A sharp political division has developed at WRC since the last local election.

Speaking out regularly against such items as the infamous velodrome handout (requiring close to $12m in rates) and plans for a flash new $34m council office block have been the four Rates Control Team councillors.

Those minority members have not only objected at the council table but have taken their case to the public.

They have been asked to speak in the community and have expressed their views publicly through letters to editors and press releases.

Residents want and deserve to know where their representatives stand, how they vote, and why. But RCT's talkback has been a thorn in the side of Buckley, his sidekick deputy Simon Friar, and others like local Crs Lois Livingston and Paula Southgate, who regularly side with the majority.

While Buckley and his posse have paid fulltime public relations staff to routinely spin their side of the story, they don't like playing catch-up after political points have been put on the board.

Fast forward to the last council meeting.

With local elections looming in less than a year and Rates Control councillors getting their message out effectively, Buckley and his team pushed for two significant changes to WRC rules.

First, they drafted language requiring councillors to notify their PR department when sending a letter to the editor, press release, or statement to any media. Dressed up comically as an effort to improve "openness" and "transparency", the proposed rule was anything but.

It would stifle debate, blunt criticism and intimidate minority councillors. The biggest losers would be every Hamiltonian and Waikato resident.

Next, language was crafted requiring WRC councillors who meet anyone outside their constituency area to inform in advance the councillor elected from that area. This proposal amounted to a frontal attack on the privacy and rights of every Waikato resident. If Grey Power Hamilton invites Cr Russ Rimmington to speak on a controversial issue, why should they be forced to respond to potential pressure from Cr Livingston that she be invited to the meeting as well?

Put another way, what gives councillor B the right to know in advance if several residents want to have afternoon tea with councillor A - no matter where they're all from?

The advance notice provisions, innocently billed as simple "courtesies", would threaten free communication between elected officials and the people they represent. No matter how the proposals were advertised, their motivation and effect were pure politics.

In the end, the Buckley group made a hash of it all. Lacking by one vote the 75 per cent supermajority required to change a local council's code of conduct, the proposed rules on media contacts and advance notice requirements for meetings with individuals and groups failed - all eight Buckley gang in favour, but four RCT councillors opposed.

But matters got worse. Due to sheer carelessness, the council majority tripped up and accidentally approved incoherent and jumbled wording on the same topics they had hoped to change. Their mistake means councillors now are not even requested, as they previously were, to notify WRC when speaking publicly about particularly contentious issues.

The rules regarding notification of meetings with groups or individuals were simultaneously bungled. As it now stands, the conduct code does not require the limited notification provisions that have been in effect for the past five years.

The wording can only be fixed by another 75 per cent council vote - unlikely now after all the political bullying.

Like the saying goes, there are two things you never want to see made - sausage and legislation. Waikato Regional Council just proved the point.

robinsonsreport@gmail.com

- Hamilton News

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