Friday, 5 Mar 2021

Simon Bridges urges Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta not to intervene in Tauranga City Council

Tauranga MP Simon Bridges has urged local government minister Nanaia Mahuta not to take the “dramatic and draconian” step of intervening in the Tauranga City Council.

Following the shock resignation of Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell on Friday and a damning independent review and observation team report into dysfunction in the council’s governance, Mahuta said she would consider intervention options including potentially replacing elected members with commissioners.

Long-time Tauranga MP and former National Party leader Bridges wrote to Mahuta yesterday asking her not to intervene and calling for caution.

“Despite the dysfunction the report identifies, intervention is a dramatic and draconian step not to be undertaken lightly and things are likely to become more functional from here on in,” he wrote.

Bridges said in his view, Powell quitting removed a “significant source of friction”.

He said it was reasonable to assume the council would become more functional with the upcoming elections of a new mayor and councillor – replacing Powell and Jako Abrie, who quit in October.

“While no one can be certain of this, I say this is more likely than not because last term the council was more functional than it has been so far this term and the majority of councillors left on the council were councillors before this term and the mayor’s tenure.

“Previous mayors such as mayor [Stuart] Crosby and [Greg] Brownless have more or less successfully managed councillor conflict in the past,” he said.

Bridges’ letter said he apportioned “no blame on the mayor or any current councillor” and community views would vary.

While the report highlighted issues on top of dysfunction between elected members, in his view, those issues were not beyond what the council would normally deal with.

“Therefore they do not individually or collectively reach anything like the threshold for intervention.”

Bridges – who previously said commissioners would be “embarrassing” for the city – said his request for the minister not to intervene specifically related to the appointment of a Crown manager or commissioner. He did not have a position on a Crown observer.

Responding to comments in Bridges’ letter, Powell said, in his view, previous mayors “managed internal conflict by not addressing the key issues facing Tauranga and not having the moral courage to do what’s right” and the city lagged behind in infrastructure as a result.

“Simon Bridges isn’t the Government, [local Labour list MPs] Jan Tinetti and Angie Warren-Clark are and, because of their very active roles in the community, they are significantly better placed than Mr Bridges to understand this dynamic.”

Powell also said the report did not find he was “the problem” but identified governance issues across the elected members.

“For Mr Bridges to suggest the remaining [elected members] are capable of governing is to reject the report.”

Both Brownless and Crosby disputed Powell’s characterisation.

Brownless said his council did face up to its issues, and without the “level of vitriol” of the current council.

Brownless, who lost his re-election bid to Powell last year, is still considering whether to run for mayor in the byelection, having previously said he would stand for councillor. He is a National Party supporter.

Crosby, currently a regional councillor and president of Local Government New Zealand, said during his time as mayor Tauranga City Council made substantial investment in three-waters and community infrastructure, raising rates and debts to fund it. He said State highway investment failed to keep pace “despite having the Minister of Transport [Bridges] residing in Tauranga”.

Asked to comment on what the Government should do about the council, Tinetti and Warren Clark both said they would support Minister Mahuta’s decision.

Mahuta is expected to receive advice from officials tomorrow on whether the council’s situation met the threshold for intervention under part 10 of the Local Government Act.

She would report back to Cabinet in December, she said in a statement last Friday.

Officials were considering intervention options “at the higher end of the scale” including appointing a Crown observer (to assist the council), Crown manager (to direct the council), or commissioners (to replace the council).

A week ago the review and observation team recommended the council ask the Minister to appoint a Crown manager.

The council supported this recommendation on Friday in a 5-5 split vote decided by Powell’s casting vote. Minutes later, he resigned and called for the council to be replaced with commissioners, saying the city’s future “cannot be left to a small group of petty politicians”.

A spokeswoman for the Minister’s office said yesterday Bridges’ letter had been passed on to the officials in the Department of Internal Affairs who would be advising her.

Nominations for the byelection opened yesterday. No nominations were received as of the afternoon, according to electoral officer Warwick Lampp.

Interventions rare

Central Government interventions into local councils are reasonably rare but can be long-lasting.

Three commissioners were appointed by the National government to replace Kaipara District Council in 2012 – among them Peter Winder, who chaired Tauranga’s review and observation team.

The commissioners left at the 2016 election.

The trio of commissioners appointed in 2010 by the National government to take over Environment Canterbury retired in 2019, with the last three years of their tenure spent as appointed regional councillors following a partial election.

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