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John MacDonald: We all know who's really in charge of local councils

John MacDonald,
Publish Date
Mon, 15 May 2023, 1:46pm
Christchurch City Council (Edward Swift)
Christchurch City Council (Edward Swift)

John MacDonald: We all know who's really in charge of local councils

John MacDonald,
Publish Date
Mon, 15 May 2023, 1:46pm

Christchurch mayor Phil Mauger has come out firing today.

He’s accusing his council’s staff of “running amok” and says they need to be “reined in”. They're his actual words. “They're running amok and they need to be reined in”.

But wait, there’s more. He’s also describing his transport staff as "the anti-car brigade".

He’s not alone either. Some of the other usual suspects have weighed-in. Councillor Aaron Keown and Councillor James Gough also condemning their transport staff for making changes to the road near Hagley Park.

Specifically, Rolleston Ave and Park Terrace from the Antigua Boat Sheds to Salisbury Street. The bit that runs alongside Hagley Park, past Christ’s College and the George Hotel.

The changes to the road they’re brassed-off about is the creation of a new cycleway. What the council transport people have done, is they’ve blocked off one of the lanes heading north and turned it into a two-way cycle lane.

It’s marked-off with bollard-type things and means that stretch of road is now one-lane, instead of two.

And Phil Mauger claims he didn’t know a thing about it. And he and Aaron Keown and James Gough are demanding that the road be reinstated to how it’s always been - with two lanes. And they’re accusing council staff of being sneaky.

What seems to have happened, is the council transport people got a bit concerned about cyclists and pedestrians being put at risk by the development work going on at Canterbury Museum. And they thought closing a lane of traffic and turning it into a cycleway was the answer.

And so they went to councillors with this idea for a temporary traffic management plan. And, according to James Gough, councillors were led to believe that they would have a say on this.

But that didn’t happen. And a traffic lane on Park Terrace has disappeared and it’s now a cycleway.

Councillor Aaron Keown says in all the time he’s been a councillor, he’s never seen this sort of “temporary” work happen and he says it’s just unacceptable that council staff have gone and done this.

Which reeks of that idea that council staff tried to push last year, which would allow them to make a major change to a piece of road without any consultation or discussion first -  because it would be a trial. And then, two years down the track, they’d ask us what we thought about it.

It’s also very similar to that daft idea they came up with earlier this year of spending more than $1 million upgrading a stretch of Gloucester Street, in central Christchurch; trialling it for 10 weeks; and then undoing all the work after 10 weeks if they thought it wasn’t working.

At least with this pop-up cycleway on Park Terrace, it doesn’t look like a million-dollar project. But I do think it’s completely unnecessary.

And what we now have, is city councillors fighting publicly with their own transport staff. Phil Mauger’s calling them “the anti-car brigade” and he and other councillors are making public demands that the changes be reversed.

Which raises the age-old question about local government. Which is just as pertinent today, as it ever was.

And that is: who’s running the place - the councillors elected by us? Or the staff who, apparently, work for them?

I know for a fact that staff at Environment Canterbury loved it when there were commissioners running the place instead of elected councillors. Much easier for them.

And I also know that city council staff often see councillors as a real pain in the backside. Because, if they’re any good, they ask questions.

But often - from my observations over the years - councillors aren’t any good and they don’t ask the challenging questions and the council staff get away with what they want to get away with.

That’s because they spend hours trying to anticipate the sorts of questions they might get from the elected members of the council which means, by the time they’re sitting in the council chamber, they can trot out the well-rehearsed lines to bat away any unhelpful questions from councillors.

Which is why, for a long time now, I’ve been of the belief that while mayors and councillors might like to think they’re running the place - they’re not. And it’s the council staff who really run the place.

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