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John MacDonald: My challenge to Christchurch City Council

John MacDonald,
Publish Date
Tue, 21 Nov 2023, 12:25pm
The Christchurch City Council building (Photo / Edward Swift).
The Christchurch City Council building (Photo / Edward Swift).

John MacDonald: My challenge to Christchurch City Council

John MacDonald,
Publish Date
Tue, 21 Nov 2023, 12:25pm

I bet Dawn Baxendale is feeling like a new woman today. Because, as we now know, she is about to be the ex-chief executive of the Christchurch City Council. 

And God help the next person who takes over. Because what an outfit that place is.  

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of good people there. People doing the day-in, day-out stuff that local councils do. But when you’ve got so many of the head honchos running for the hills, something is seriously wrong isn’t it? And I reckon a full-on, external review of the whole council is way overdue. Top-to-bottom. 

Already this year, we’ve had the boss of the council’s water division and the general manager of infrastructure disappear on leave for months and then eventually resign. 

Two other senior leaders went on leave recently. The chief financial officer is on sick leave and the head of HR is on leave - after only being in the role a few months. A couple of other key senior people have left too to take up new jobs elsewhere. 

Would the last executive to leave please turn the lights out! 

And, further down the chain, people have been leaving in droves too. People who, ultimately, Dawn Baxendale has been responsible for. Because, as chief executive, she is the only staff member answerable to the councillors. Everyone else in that building is answerable to the chief executive. And the buck has stopped with her. And she’s gone. 

She handed-in her resignation letter two weeks ago yesterday. Last Wednesday, we had all that drama when the council went into closed meeting out-of-the-blue. Which, as we now know, is when councillors were told about it by the mayor. That was also when they decided to accept her resignation. 

And then, yesterday, the council announced that she’s gone-burger. 

She had been on leave and was apparently going to be back at council HQ yesterday but she’s now going to stay on leave until her resignation takes effect. 

So I think we can assume there’s not going to be any morning teas, or speeches, or whip-arounds, or giant farewell cards saying the sorts of things you see on those cards. You know: “our loss is their gain”. 

Although, who knows if she’s moving on to something else or not. Because the council has been a very closed shop. No councillors were talking on or off-the-record last week when this first came up. 

And it’s been the same since the announcement yesterday. Nothing to say. See ya later. 

I suppose, eventually, we’ll find out what’s behind it all. The official word is that she is leaving because of personal reasons and that it was her choice. 

Now personal reasons could simply be that she’s had a gutsful of working at that outfit. And who could blame her. That’s a personal reason. Or it could be something else.  

And as for it being her choice. Well a line I’ve heard a few times since yesterday’s announcement is that she might have jumped before she was pushed. So yes, technically, it was her choice. A choice she may have made before it was no longer her choice. 

In the statement the council put out yesterday, Dawn Baxendale said she is extremely proud of what the council has achieved during a very challenging time over the past four years. 

But, on paper, her time as chief executive has been a disaster. And it’s being reported that a preliminary report on a review of her performance since she took on the job in 2019 pretty much says that too. 

The final report was or is still to be done. But it’s understood that the survey of a whole range of people, including staff, didn’t paint her in a very good light. Staff aren’t happy, the public isn’t happy and truckloads of people - at all levels - have been quitting their jobs there. 

So what’s going on? Well don’t look to our elected councillors for an honest answer. Because they’re the ones who like to bang on about building trust and confidence in the council. That they’re there for the people blah, blah, blah. So forget about them.  

What needs to happen, is an independent reviewer - perhaps someone appointed by Local Government New Zealand - needs to be sent in to go through the whole place with a fine tooth comb.

Just looking at the chief executive’s performance isn’t enough. Because how do we know that Dawn Baxendale wasn’t set-up to fail right from the start by an organisation that may be - who knows - may be toxic to its core. 

And unless we know the problems behind all these departures - not just at executive level, but right through the organisation - if that isn’t looked into and remedied, then the next chief executive is going to be resigning under a cloud too. And the next one. And the next one. 

And this is where we need to see some real leadership from the mayor and the councillors. Just accepting Dawn Baxendale’s resignation and appointing someone else to the job isn't enough. Isn’t good enough. 

If those councillors really are serious about increasing trust and confidence in the council, then they need to initiate a full-scale, external  review or enquiry into why the outfit they lead is performing so badly. 

And that would include them too. The whole place needs a good going-over. 

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