Rubber stampers, or efficient decision-makers?
That’s the question that’s sparked a fiery debate between current and former Queenstown councillors, as new figures show councillors spent 71 hours in closed-door workshops last year.
They spent 12.5 hours in 10 public full council meetings, and 7 hours and 23 minutes in the public sections of 15 committee meetings.
Former mayor Warren Cooper is critical of the council’s relationship with the public – and the level of input councillors have on issues.
“They’ve become in the style of rubber stampers, which is a bit of a tragedy,” he laments.
But mayor Jim Boult believes the workshops, and relatively low levels of dissent at meetings, show a council that’s efficient and well run.
Cooper, a former National Party minister, says he doesn’t enjoy going to council meetings because he becomes “exasperated” by what he perceives as a lack of public discussion.
“I don’t think there’s any information getting out to the public.
“I think the community is much more distanced from the council than they have been in my experience.”
Former councillor Cath Gilmour’s also concerned.
“There’s certainly a role for workshops, but when there’s so little debate outside of these closed sessions, it can give the impression of group think or dominance by a strong voice,” she says.
“If that were the reality, it wouldn’t be healthy for democracy or decision-making.”
Legally, no decisions can be made in workshops, and Gilmour says there are “good reasons for that”.
“When there’s so little discussion in full council meetings – lasting on average 1.25 hours, despite meaty agendas – the media and public don’t get a chance to scrutinise and understand why decisions were made and what the alternatives might have been.”
According to Local Government NZ, the role of elected councillors includes setting policies, making regulatory decisions and reviewing council performance, based on information and recommendations made by permanent council staffers.
Mayor Boult says the “quantum of the challenge facing the district” means councillors need to get on and do things, rather than getting “hung up in the weeds”.
“Ironically the path you are heading down is not drawing out collusion or lack of transparency, it’s simply demonstrating that we have a cohesive and responsive set of people who have informed themselves, who work closely with a highly-functioning organisation, which is in full delivery mode.”
He says workshops help councillors get their heads around matters that are “often complex and technical”.
“I don’t think there is a rule that says good governance can only be achieved through dissension.
“On the contrary I think our strength lies in holding a shared vision and a strong desire to make our district great.”
His comments follow a rarity in Queenstown’s council chambers that occurred recently– a split vote. Councillors narrowly approved, with Boult and three councillors opposed, deferring a decision on the contentious Laurel Hills housing proposal until next month’s meeting.
It’s relatively rare in the current council term for a councillor to have a vote recorded against a motion.
Council meeting minutes, since the current council term began in late 2016, show 14 recorded votes against motions across six councillors.
There were also two split votes at a meeting in October 2017, but the way each councillor voted was not recorded.
Arrowtown ward councillor Scott Stevens was also a tad tetchy when contacted for comment, saying he engaged in “plenty of debate”, and that attendance at workshops is “critical for councillors to understand some very complex council work”.
“I’m not sure what point you are trying to make but if you believe ‘dissent’ is a sign of a healthy council, then you are on another planet to me.”
According to full council meeting minutes, Wanaka ward councillor Quentin Smith has the most recorded votes against motions, with five.
He said he would leave general questions “to leadership to respond in full”, but did note he seemed to be “a lone voice sometimes”. “I suppose it is democracy in action.”
Council elections will take place in October.