Parting Shot: Where’s the public debate?

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I can think of two examples, just off the top of my head, just in recent weeks, where things that went before councillors appeared to already be a done deal.

Fait accompli. Pass me the rubber stamp . . . again.

The first was the referendum. Incidentally, God knows why we need a referendum on a tourist tax. Just read the comments section on Mountain Scene’s Facebook page every time Scoop writes a story about ANOTHER hotel, or look at the reaction to the airport’s very reasonable request to make the jet engine noise the soundtrack to all our lives.

Anyway, I digress.

The referendum. Teased the day before, oh you know how to work an audience, Queenstown’s council – an announcement of “national significance”. A bed tax! Finally!

The nation’s media in attendance, waiting with baited breath, mayor Jim Boult, flanked by council boss Mike Theelen, looking like bouncers on the door of the world’s most boring party, and the big announcement a …. referendum. Subject to, mumble, mumble, approval by full council (the elected councillors), in their meeting, in an hour’s time.

The second example, on the same agenda, was the Ladies Mile land purchase. This was announced via a full press release no less, the day before Shot Count ressies planned to march on the council, with burning torches and all probably, over traffic concerns and a new SHA. “We’ll buy this land for the community, subject to, mumble, mumble …”

So you’re a Queenstown councillor, sitting in the council chamber at this meeting. At what point is it okay to say ‘hold on a sec, we’re spending how much of ratepayers’ money?’

Probably about $10, 13, 15 million? and $70,000. ‘What’s the plan for this land again?’ That’s a lot of money – not to mention key decisions about the direction of communities and the town.

Surely they warrant a great deal of public discussion and debate? Except $15 million isn’t really a lot of money. Not when you’ve got somewhere around ONE BILLION DOLLARS of plans for the next decade and rates’ hikes to fund some of it. But, despite this, as our lead story today shows, councillors spent fewer than 20 hours last year debating and discussing the council’s plans in public.

Jim Boult says this is because the elected councillors are working closely with a council in “full delivery mode” and we all know the town needs that. None of us want to go back to the days of the last council, with Adam Feeley, hand over mouth, whispering to Vanessa van Uden about convention centres and the need to dissolve Lakes Environmental (that went well!) while councillors witter on about things and very little gets done.

But at least some of them had an opinion, a voice, at least the likes of Cath Gilmour would say “hold on a sec”. In public.

Now I’m not saying there’s corruption, or councillors are disinterested, or not pushing for residents’ concerns behind the scenes and in the workshops – they’re a good bunch, all with strong community ties.

And I’m not saying the councillors and the council staffers are not getting through a phenomenal workload. I count 35 major topics that have gone out to public consultation during this council, from the future of Ladies Mile, to SHAs, waste management, annual plans, district plans and the town centre masterplans – and that’s just the stuff they’ve asked our direct opinion on.

But with this workload, surely the public council meetings should be getting longer, not shorter.

Shouldn’t they be in there for days, thrashing out in public the consequences of these massive decisions and grilling council officers. Democracy needs transparency.

It’s just it’s all a bit too slick. All a bit too “full delivery mode”.

Maybe it’s reached the point where filtering the highly-specialised work of hundreds upon hundreds of council experts through the lens of 11 representatives of the public is just too obstructive.

Maybe it’s got to the point where the town is playing catch-up so much, we need our council staffers and mayor to be benevolent dictators – tell us exactly what’s needed and then get shit done.

The problem with that, though, is what happens when we don’t want what they think is needed?

What do you think? Do we need to know our councillors’ thinking – or should we just let them get on with it?

paul.taylor@scene.co.nz