Thursday, 24 November 2016

HBRC Leader Cut Out of Prosecution Decision

It's jaw-dropping stuff but Hawkes Bay Regional Council's Chair was not consulted on his council's prosecution of Hastings District Council.

The NZ Herald are reporting Rex Graham's public dissatisfaction with his own staff over their unilateral decision to prosecute. Unfortunately the Herald have missed some subtle but very important points in their own story. Yes, councillors were informed of developments during the investigation but they were not asked to approve the prosecution itself.

This is a major blunder by CEO, Andrew Newman. To understand why you have to turn the clock back to 1989. The Reorganisation of Local Government at that time introduced the separation of governance and operations. Elected members were supposed to restrict themselves to policy matters and let the staff, under the Chief Executive, get on with implementing policy and operating the council. Tidy though the concept is, in real life there are many grey areas. Prosecution happens to be one of them. Sometimes its OK for staff to just get on with it and sometimes they really need elected member involvement.

The problem for councils is that generally they are not respected, trusted or liked. In that context a prosecution has a good chance of making a council look bad even when they are in the right. It's no surprise, then, that prosecution is often a last resort. And, given the almost inevitable risk to the reputation of the council, why the elected members need to be sure that they are doing the right thing and are prepared to deal with any negative outcomes.

I take from this report that Graham was happy for the staff to conduct investigations in preparation for the government's inquiry into the Havelock North gastro outbreak. And the elected members appear to have been receiving reports on the process by email. What he is miffed about is that when staff decided a prosecution was warranted they did not get the go-ahead from the elected members. Clearly he assumed that would happen and did not see the need to spell out his expectations to Newman. Newman should have known better than to simply exercise his delegation in this matter.

This incident has deeper ramifications. It's a quirk of local government that no one person is genuinely in charge: the CEO cannot make policy and policy is made by committees (with the Mayor or Chair only having one vote same as everyone else). Councils work best when the Mayor/Chair and CEO work as a team exercising a kind of informal leadership over the whole organisation. Obviously this is not happening in HBRC. And when staff start ignoring the elected members and that relationship breaks down it can only end in tears. Usually the CEO's.

No comments:

Post a Comment