Si­mon Wil­son

‘Coun­cil busi­ness’ cited as a rea­son for leave, which was later changed

The New Zealand Herald - - News -

Coun­cil­lors have gone awol. Coun­cil­lor Greg Say­ers was in the Cook Is­lands re­cently. So, co­in­ci­den­tally, was coun­cil­lor Penny Hulse. She bumped into him in the Muri Night Mar­ket on Raro­tonga.

Hulse was on hol­i­day. But Say­ers wasn’t. He’d recorded his ab­sence as “coun­cil busi­ness”, al­though he wasn’t do­ing any busi­ness for the coun­cil.

“Hi Greg,” Hulse ap­par­ently said to him. “What a sur­prise.”

Say­ers promptly con­tacted coun­cil of­fi­cials and asked for the record to be changed so he, too, was listed as be­ing on hol­i­day. At a coun­cil meet­ing shortly after, when the min­utes were be­ing con­firmed, he made a point of clar­i­fy­ing that he had been ab­sent on leave, not on coun­cil busi­ness.

Asked to com­ment, Say­ers said, “Yes, my ab­sence was in­cor­rectly recorded at a com­mit­tee meet­ing and this has been cor­rected.” He did not di­rectly re­spond to the sug­ges­tion he had in­cor­rectly recorded the ab­sence him­self.

Hulse fol­lowed up at a meet­ing this week by op­pos­ing a pro­ce­dural mo­tion to ac­cept the apolo­gies of ab­sent coun­cil­lors. This time she named Fa’ana¯ na¯ Efeso Collins, who was recorded as ab­sent on “coun­cil busi­ness”.

Collins was in the US at the time, as a guest of the State De­part­ment, ob­serv­ing their Midterm elec­tions.

Asked to com­ment, Collins said he was vis­it­ing “a num­ber of Amer­i­can states to un­der­stand the func­tion and re­la­tion­ship of fed­eral, state and lo­cal govern­ment”.

He de­scribed Hulse’s com­plaint as “a lame at­tempt to dis­credit this most valu­able, pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment trip. In my view the travel meets the def­i­ni­tion of be­ing away on coun­cil busi­ness”.

He said he’d briefed Mayor Phil Goff be­fore he left. Goff had shared sto­ries from the time he went on the same pro­gramme as an MP.

A spokesper­son for Goff con­firmed this, adding that the mayor did not ap­prove the trip — be­cause the mayor does not have the author­ity to do that. Coun­cil­lors de­fine their own “coun­cil busi­ness”.

It’s the se­cond time this year Collins has vis­ited the US on “coun­cil busi­ness”. In July he at­tended a “De­lib­er­a­tive Democ­racy Ex­change” in Ohio as a guest of the Ket­ter­ing Foun­da­tion, a pub­lic pol­icy think tank.

Hulse said she ac­cepts there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween a coun­cil­lor hav­ing a po­lit­i­cal learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence over­seas and just go­ing on hol­i­day, but she be­lieves such trips should have pub­lic scru­tiny any­way.

“It’s fan­tas­tic for him,” she said about Collins’ trip. “Good on him. But why were we not given the chance to talk about this?”

She sug­gested coun­cil­lors who want to record an ab­sence on coun­cil busi­ness should have to pro­vide “clear and cred­i­ble” in­for­ma­tion about what they’re up to. She’s asked coun­cil of­fi­cials to re­port on whether they could change the stand­ing or­ders to re­quire that.

Invit­ing coun­cil­lors to judge each other’s ac­tiv­ity car­ries some ob­vi­ous prob­lems: coun­cil­lors are ac­count­able to the vot­ers, after all, not to each other. A bet­ter so­lu­tion might be to re­quire coun­cil­lors ab­sent on coun­cil busi­ness to file a re­port when they re­turn.

Goff al­ready does that, rou­tinely, and so does his deputy, Bill Cash­more. Their re­ports are in the pub­lic record.

But not all coun­cil­lors do it. Per­haps they should — that would help all of us de­cide if they’re earn­ing their pay.

At­ten­dance data is al­ready on the pub­lic record and the last six months’ worth (April-Septem­ber, see ta­ble) re­veal a sur­pris­ingly wide range among coun­cil­lors.

They all be­long to the gov­ern­ing body and three “com­mit­tees of the whole” (fi­nance, plan­ning and en­vi­ron­ment and com­mu­nity). There are six more “re­port­ing and stand­ing com­mit­tees” to which they can choose to be­long. Some sign up for more than oth­ers. The mayor and his deputy are ex-of­fi­cio mem­bers of all 10.

If they be­long to a com­mit­tee they’re sup­posed to go to its meet­ings. It’s not the only thing we pay them for, but the meet­ings are im­por­tant: that’s where they make de­ci­sions.

Coun­cil­lors are also in­vited to at­tend “work­shops”, where they’re briefed by of­fi­cials and dis­cuss the de­tail of coun­cil pro­pos­als.

Work­shops are the engine room for gen­er­at­ing in­formed de­bate — so while they’re not com­pul­sory they are im­por­tant too.

Des­ley Simp­son gets the gold star. She at­tended her com­mit­tee meet­ings for 99 per cent of the time in the last six months and for work­shops it was 95 per cent. But she be­longs to only five com­mit­tees, so per­haps doesn’t have quite as many meet­ings as most other coun­cil­lors. John Wat­son, Cathy Casey, Richard Hills and Chris Darby also at­tended com­mit­tees over 90 per cent of the time and Casey, Darby and Hills were in the top four for work­shops too, along with Simp­son.

The coun­cil­lor who showed up the least was Sir John Walker: he at­tended 43 per cent of meet­ings and only 19 per cent of work­shops. Sir John has Parkin­son’s dis­ease and is not able to play a full role in coun­cil busi­ness. He was one of sev­eral coun­cil­lors to be granted a leave of ab­sence dur­ing some of this pe­riod.

The av­er­age for com­mit­tee meet­ings was 80 per cent. But it was a dif­fer­ent story with work­shops, where the av­er­age dropped to 64 per cent. Say­ers, Sharon Ste­wart, Collins, Mike Lee and Goff also all at­tended less than half of the time.

Not count­ing Sir John, Say­ers had the worst work­shop record by far: he turned up only 27 per cent of the time to work­shops. Asked about this, he said, “Rather than be­ing at all of the non-de­ci­sion mak­ing work­shops, I find my time is far bet­ter spent out in the com­mu­nity en­gag­ing with Auck­land’s cit­i­zens, lis­ten­ing to their needs and ac­tively help­ing them. Be­ing out in the com­mu­nity help­ing peo­ple is a very re­ward­ing part of my job.”

Say­ers didn’t just miss three­quar­ters of the work­shops, he used “coun­cil busi­ness” — re­mem­ber that? — as the rea­son for his ab­sence 47 per cent of the time.

No other coun­cil­lors came close to this. Even the mayor, who prob­a­bly has far more coun­cil busi­ness call­ing him away than all the oth­ers, cited it only 22 per cent of the time.

Ste­wart ad­vised that if she is ab­sent, she is “al­most al­ways out in my com­mu­nity”. She added that with the ill­ness and death of her How­ick ward co-coun­cil­lor Dick Quax this year, she has had the work­load of two coun­cil­lors. Collins said, “I am con­fi­dent that my lo­cal res­i­dents will be more than sat­is­fied with my com­mit­ment to them.”

As it hap­pens, most of the coun­cil­lors with below-av­er­age at­ten­dance records at work­shops are also those most likely to vote against the var­i­ous pro­pos­als be­fore coun­cil.

It’s their job to vote as they see fit, of course.

But if they took more of their chances to be­come bet­ter in­formed, might they not be more ef­fec­tive in their op­po­si­tion? And yes, they do earn good money. The base salary for a coun­cil­lor is $109,750.

Greg Say­ers was seen in Raro­tonga by Penny Hulse.

Source: Auck­land Coun­cil / Herald graphic

Penny Hulse says coun­cil­lors need to pro­vide clear and cred­i­ble in­for­ma­tion on trips.

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