Tauranga city councillors hit back at minister’s intention to replace them with a commission

“An early Christmas present” to ratepayers, a reason to “pop open the Champagne” – or an “absolutely poor decision” and an “extraordinary mistake”.

These are the diverging views on Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s announcement that she intends to appoint a commission to replace Tauranga’s beleaguered city council.

The minister’s decision is in response to “significant governance problems” among the council’s elected representatives and the findings of a damning independent review. The news follows former mayor Tenby Powell’s shock resignation last month.

In a media statement, Mahuta said she had been closely watching the conduct of the council for months.

“I have grown increasingly concerned at the governance issues, and the impact this has on Tauranga ratepayers and significant investment in the region.”

Mahuta said the council was given the opportunity to address the concerns but has demonstrated more direct action was needed.

She was keen to make a decision quickly so Tauranga could get on with its “critical” planning and investment.

Councillor Andrew Hollis he said he was shocked and the decision was “ridiculous”.

“The main issue has been solved. That was when the mayor resigned. A commissioner is an absolutely poor decision.

“Nanaia Mahuta, in my opinion, has made an extraordinary mistake.”

Hollis said he was now scared the city’s rates would skyrocket.

“What is now happening is that last backstop for fiscal prudence has been removed. Central Government is now in charge of Tauranga City. If that doesn’t make your skin crawl, I don’t know what will.”

Hollis said he was angry and frustrated “that we weren’t even given a chance now the friction in our council has gone”.

When asked what responsibility he took for the council’s situation, Hollis said “none”.

Rather, he blamed Powell for “taking the easy way out” when he resigned on November 20.

Powell disputed Hollis’ claims and said a commission was what the city needed.

“Andrew Hollis can find all the scapegoats he wants but he’s part of the problem.”

Powell said Tauranga had been a casualty of decades of “civic neglect”.

“Tauranga is a city of strategic importance. It cannot be left to a small group of petty politicians. This is our opportunity now for the city to go forward in ways it desperately needs to, specifically in terms of infrastructure, housing and social amenities.”

When asked what concerns he had regarding rates potentially increasing dramatically while under the control of a commission, Powell said: “Something has to give”.

“We can’t keep on kicking the can down a pot-holed road,” he said.

“The vast number of councillors didn’t have the vision or courage to recognise or act on the problem. This has been central to our conflict.

“As far as I’m concerned, residents in Tauranga and the Western Bay of Plenty should consider this as an early Christmas present and pop the Champagne.

“Now at least we can have sensible commissioners making decisions on how to fund the city.”

Five-term councillor Bill Grainger said he was “quite gutted” about the outcome.

“Personally I think it would have been better to bring in a Crown manager. All I can say is God help the ratepayers, democracy has gone out the window.”

Grainger said the deterioration of the council “should not have got this far”.

Councillor Kelvin Clout said he had “grave concerns”.

“The imposition of a commission tramples over the democratic rights of Tauranga’s residents.”

Clout said although personal conflicts had dominated the first year of their term, Powell’s resignation created an opportunity to restore stability to the city’s leadership with the coming byelections.

“Minister Mahuta should trust our community to determine the course of our future, rather than inflicting planned development on us from Wellington.

“A Wellington-appointed commission won’t understand what our community needs.”

Councillor Steve Morris said it would be up to the ratepayers’ associations to represent the community from now on.

Morris said the decision will make “rich developers richer and ordinary ratepayers poorer”.

“The bureaucracy will be monitoring the bureaucracy. Ratepayers will be the only line of defence now between crazy and sensible spending.”

The council has 10 working days to respond to the minister’s letter of intention and acting mayor Tina Salisbury said it would do so by December 18.

The council’s response will be considered before a final decision is made, which Salisbury anticipated would be early next year.

Salisbury said if the appointment was confirmed, a commission would take over all matters relating to governance, effectively replacing and taking the role of the council’s elected members.

“Our community can have confidence that council’s full range of essential services and activities will continue to be delivered professionally, effectively and without interruption,” she said.

That will include the 2021/2031 long-term plan.

Tauranga MP and former National Party leader Simon Bridges wrote to the minister last month asking her not to take the “dramatic and draconian” step of intervening.

Bridges said that in his view Powell quitting removed a “significant source of friction”.

Responding to yesterday’s announcement, Bridges said, “I personally have my doubts”.

“Having met with Minister Mahuta recently on this, I’ve been clear for a little while that she intends to appoint a commission to replace the council.”

But Bridges said there was now little point relitigating Mahuta’s options.

“Let’s see in a couple of years time whether anyone is brave enough to still say that doing it was a great idea.”

Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller said it “certainly isn’t a day of celebration, rather a confirmation of collective failure”.

Muller said it was disappointing for the city but he welcomed the move.

“It seems that they have reached a point where they [the council] are unable to see beyond their own personal perspectives to be able to pull together and serve the city.”

Local Government New Zealand’s national council supported the minister’s decision, saying it was a “tough call” that put the community’s interests first.

LGNZ president Stuart Crosby said there was disappointment that such “drastic action” had to be taken.

“But it is a lesson to us all that dysfunctional behaviour won’t be tolerated because it undermines faith in the local democratic process.

“While the decision to remove the democratic representative tier of a council is never taken lightly, when it does it is appropriate that accountability is shared.”

Phil Green, chairman of the Grace Road And Neighbourhood Residents Association, said the minister’s decision was a “wake-up call” for councillors.

“As residents, we would rather have trust in our leaders and some direction from the council chambers but we haven’t been getting that. So while it’s unfortunate, it’s not surprising.”

Green said he hoped a commission would allow the council to “draw a line in the sand and move on from this point”.

“We have appointed these leaders to run our city in our best interests. We looked up to them and thought they were intelligent people who were capable of sound decision-making but they haven’t been acting very intelligent.”

Western Bay of Plenty mayor Garry Webber said he was disappointed but not surprised.

“It’s not really the democratic way we get people into councils.

“This is not something that has happened overnight.”

Councillor John Robson refused to comment. Councillors Larry Baldock, Dawn Kiddie and Heidi Hughes were also contacted.

List MP Jan Tinetti was confident Mahuta was operating with the best interests of Tauranga at heart.

Bay of Plenty list MP Angie Warren-Clark directed all media requests to the minister’s office.

Central Government interventions into local councils are reasonably rare but can be long-lasting.

Three commissioners were appointed by the National-led Government to replace the Kaipara District Council in 2012.

Among them was Peter Winder, who chaired Tauranga’s review and observation team.
The commissioners left at the 2016 election.

The trio of commissioners appointed in 2010 by the National-led Government to take over Environment Canterbury retired in 2019, with the last three years of their tenure spent as appointed regional councillors after a partial election.

Additional reporting – Stephanie Arthur-Worsop

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