A Capital Letter: Why Wellington’s Mayor should have known better

Senior Wellington journalist Georgina Campbell’s fortnightly column looks closely at issues in the capital.

OPINION:

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster should have known better than to re-litigate the Central Library, instead he has demonstrated a complete inability to learn and be a leader.

But it is premature to call for a Crown observer or commissioners to be brought in.

Instead, last week Foster announced an independent review of the council’s governance.

His leadership has been tested and questioned since the day he was elected.

The council has been painted as divided, councillors and the mayor are regularly at loggerheads with one another, and spats between them have been publicly aired more than once.

Wellington City Council has been on a bumpy road for a while, but up until now the key point has always been that the wheels on the bus have been going round-and-round.

Foster has shown little ability to get the numbers around the table and has struggled to act as the mayor rather than a councillor.

That has left a majority to form elsewhere.

As various papers have come before the Strategy and Policy Committee, the council’s engine room, the left bloc of councillors have put their stamp on decisions.

They have then been sent off to move through the bowels of the council, which to this day remains functional.

Foster has chosen to grin and bear it, mostly.

There are two notable occasions where he has publicly lashed out at his councillors.

The first time was when he lost a vote to extend free parking after the Covid-19 lockdown, the second when the council decided to sell and lease its land at Shelly Bay to make way for development.

Foster posted on his Facebook page: “I am deeply saddened for many thousands of Wellingtonians who care passionately about this iconic place, and that council is not standing with you.”

The politics of local government should not be mistaken for disorder.

Unlike central government, where issues are thrashed out behind the closed doors of Cabinet and caucus meetings, local government does it in public meetings.

It’s a very transparent example of democracy at work and a contest of ideas we should expect to see at any decision-making table.

But the ground has shifted over the past two weeks.

When Foster brought along 11 cost-saving amendments to a committee meeting on February 18, it wasn’t just any old meeting. It was a meeting to deliberate the city’s Long Term Plan.

This review of the council’s 10-year budget comes at a critical time, between failing water pipes, seismic issues that are still revealing themselves, Let’s Get Wellington Moving, and a climate crisis.

The fact that Foster wanted to change a budget he had publicly announced just one week ago was extraordinary.

Many councillors felt blindsided after Foster outlined his suggestions in an email, described as “almost incomprehensible”, 36 hours before the meeting.

But the worst among his proposals was a bid to privatise part of the Central Library building.

Anyone with a drop of political nous would have known what a terrible idea that was.

To be fair, he actually won the library vote 9-6 thanks to two Green Party ticket councillors siding with him, at least one of whom has already had a change of heart.

The greatest risk to re-opening the library, after it shut its doors due to seismic concerns, has always been indecision.

Privatising the library had already been thrashed out last year when it was made explicitly clear to the public that cost-saving options would be explored “while maintaining council ownership of the building”.

The sentiment is so strong for some councillors, the phrase “over my dead body” springs to mind. Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons has gone as far as appealing to the Auditor-General.

The mayor should have known his proposal to re-litigate privatisation would set off a nuclear reaction.

The stoush over the library risks putting the council into a state of paralysis as it makes decisions over the Long Term Plan.

It’s tempting to call for the Local Government Minister to appoint a Crown observer or even a team of commissioners, but that kind of intervention is an absolute last resort.

Local government should be given the chance to sort out its own problems, like it has done for many decades.

For that reason, it’s a shame the scope of the independent review and the reviewer was exclusively decided by Foster rather than his entire council.

Local democracy is something worth fighting for.

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