Key recommendations made in an independent review of Wellington City Council (WCC) would essentially divide power among councillors, rather than relying on Mayor Andy Foster to find a majority.
The Herald has obtained a copy of the report, which is expected to be made public next week.
It examines relationships with the media, the lack of a working majority, Foster's ineffectiveness at being an advocate for Wellington, and structures for decision making.
Foster ordered the review seven weeks ago, saying the public's belief in their ability as councillors, and as an elected group to govern, was shaken and eroded.
Peter Winder was chosen for the job. He is the former chief executive of Local Government New Zealand and chaired the team that examined Tauranga City Council's elected member relationship issues.
Unlike the health check into the city's $6.4 billion Let's Get Wellington Moving project, which was found to be at risk of failing to deliver, Winder's report is not scathing.
It cuts through the noise, politics, and "extreme claims" made by those closest to the action.
Winder noted the council brought a focus on politics not seen across the rest of the country because of its location in the capital city.
He said debate around the council table should be "as natural as breathing".
The review did not reveal fundamental dysfunction at the council, but rather a significant tension, making decisions difficult, challenging, and fraught.
But it was important to keep this in perspective, Winder said.
The risk to the council was not debate itself but the atmospherics and tenor of some debate that could, or in fact already had, undermined trust and confidence in the institution, the review said.
Relationship with the media
Winder said Wellington City Council received a level of media scrutiny, likely higher than even Auckland or Christchurch.
"Matters that would never be reported in smaller cities and towns across the country are regularly addressed by Wellington's media."
A good deal of time was spent on assessing claims of "serial leaking" during interviews for the review, Winder said.
He was aware of three examples of confidential and commercially sensitive information being leaked: a report on the underwriting of Wellington Airport, a report on rates increase options, and commercial information relating to social housing.
While Winder considered these regrettable, he heard nothing to suggest the council had a unique and unparalleled culture of leaking compared to many other councils or the public sector in general.
Some interviewees also described emails between councillors being given to journalists as leaking.
Winder said such behaviour could not necessarily be condoned, but he did not view it as leaking.
He called it a version of the political tactic of briefing.
It raised the principle that in politics it's wise to consider how anything expressed in writing could play out in a wider-than-intended audience, he said.
"In a utopian territorial authority such considerations would not be necessary. However, local government is far removed from utopia."
No working majority
Winder said the 2019 election delivered a highly diverse council in terms of ethnicity, age, background, and outlook.
He described the council as more obviously politically partisan than most New Zealand authorities.
But the key point he identified was that neither the mayor nor any of the factions on council represented a majority around the table.
A local government majority was created either by a faction effectively forming a government, or by a highly cohesive and collaborative council effectively operating like a board of directors, Winder said.
Wellington didn't fall into either of these categories. Instead, majorities had been formed continuously issue by issue.
"Wellington's continuous state of government formation makes decision-making appear noisy, difficult, and from the outside unpredictable", he said.
Winder said this meant there was 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.
But he said there has been no effort to adapt to this situation, resulting in a "two-point plug, three-point socket dilemma".
Despite their differences, interviews revealed a high level of agreement around the council table on the issues facing Wellington and the need to make the capital a better place to live.
Winder said there was enough commonality to make the council work and current capability to develop and agree on a shared vision.
Mayor ineffective as Wellington's champion
The process of establishing a majority on an issue-by-issue basis had resulted in elected members being internally focused, Winder said.
A champion for Wellington was one of the key roles for the mayor, but to date Foster had been ineffective in this, he said.
"Enabling the mayor to step out of the midst of day-to-day administration and spend more time being Wellington's chief advocate would make a real difference."
Winder noted the council was on Parliament's front doorstep, which presented a considerable opportunity to shape the opinion of national leaders.
But Winder said in his experience, ministers could be reluctant to engage with councils which appeared inconsistent or where their leaders could not enter into meaningful commitments.
Winder said elected members and staff had struggled to adapt to the political reality the 2019 election delivered.
A circuit breaker is needed, he said.
One of the recommendations considered crucial to this was overhauling the current portfolio and committee structure.
Winder said the council should establish four key committees, each meeting once a month with a view to providing shared leadership opportunities and the ability to focus on a forward programme.
This structure would create a Finance and Administration committee, Policy Planning and Regulatory committee, Infrastructure committee, and Community Services and Operations committee.
Winder said councillors from all sides of the political spectrum should be appointed to the committee chair and deputy chair roles.
This would encourage consensus building and enhance councillor ownership with the ability to influence and exercise leadership in these positions, he said.
The roles would also act as the spokespeople for the areas of council business that fell within the scope of each committee.
It would replace the current Strategy and Policy committee, which Winder said was overburdened.
It would also do away with portfolios, which Winder described as creating uncertain roles and accountabilities. He described this as being an impediment to good governance.
The new committee structure would give the task of consensus building to councillors.
It would give Foster more time and energy to focus on being Wellington's chief advocate.
Other recommendations included governance training for elected members, better resourcing for councillors, establishing a council vision, and support for committees through working groups to tackle complex issues.
Winder stressed in his report the importance of keeping perspective.
He said he was told during his investigation that behaviour within the council was the "worst there has been in local government" and the level of dysfunction was "unmatched".
But Winder said there was no evidence to support such "extreme claims" and some reactions from elected members and staff bordered on "catastrophising".
Nor did he find a case for ministerial intervention, despite prominent calls for the Government to step in earlier this year.
The fact remained the council was still making decisions and while the process might be more robust, adversarial and publicly noisy than many would wish for, the processes were still reaching a conclusion, Winder said.
He acknowledged the situation was difficult, personally challenging, and there was substantial room for improvement.
"It is only to say that things are not as bad as some of those involved have convinced themselves of."