Privilege brings responsibilities


It is an honour to be a councillor, and a privilege.

But that privilege brings responsibilities with it. Like promoting your community and preserving your reputation — something that has been too often forgotten lately.

I hate hearing radio hosts bagging local government. Or talkback callers blithely labelling every council in the country a bunch of self-serving, petty, extravagant incompetents who’ve proved beyond doubt why nobody bothers to vote for them.

But I hate even more hearing about a council that’s done exactly the kind of daft thing, like pushing a vanity project or grandstanding on a political issue, that gives the critics another reason to put the boot in. The same goes for councillors whose internal conflicts or dotty comments have either cost a fortune or made the rest of us look like a bunch of gormless prats.

Worse still, it’s not just individual councillors or councils — most of whom are dominated, like Parliament, by political parties — that are shooting us in the foot. Even Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) — the body supposed to speak for us — has got in the act, in my opinion.

When the Government recently announced it was ignoring public opinion and pressing ahead with its four company, 3 Waters reforms — which will inevitably see water meters in every home in the country — the president of LGNZ, Stuart Crosby, meekly said change had to happen because we all know the system is broken.

Well, you may think that, Stuart, I don’t.

The system’s not broken.

It may not be perfect in some areas, but in most places, on most days, most people wake up and drink safe water, enjoy good showers, flush efficient toilets and have drains that cope with bad weather.

For me, the problem’s one of size; the size of smaller towns and the size of the bill they have to pay to improve standards.

And the solution’s simple.

The Government that’s setting the standards should share some of its funds. We don’t need four companies, we need more cash. Cash to help smaller towns, cash togive local people real control over their local assets.

Speaking of things local, we’ve debated two issues lately.

First was the annual plan, which included a 7.47% rates rise. We got 56 submissions on that. Then there was Forrester Heights. We got more than 900 submissions on those 2.51ha of endowment land.

Fifty-six submissions on a 7.47% rates rise, more than 900 submissions on 2.51ha of land.
I wish the numbers had been the other way round, because I think a 7.47% rate increase means more to more people than what happens to 2.51ha.

Phone surveys are telling us lots of people think rates are too high. So, if rates are too high, how do we pay for the things we want in the years ahead? That’s a question we must answer. And when we do, our responsibility will be, as always, to try to get the best possible result for the largest number of people.

Numbers were also a feature in the Forrester Heights debate. One submitter argued that the majority wanted a reserve so we had to support that majority. Maybe so, except we’re also being told we should listen to young people and get them involved with councils.
Well, that certainly happened with Forrester Heights.

Oamaru Intermediate School students gave us some really impressive submissions. And they told a different story. Yes, some did want Forrester Heights to become a reserve, but more wanted to sell the land to help fund the Waitaki Event Centre. A number said the council should do the development itself and earn up to $13,000,000 doing so. Idealistic perhaps, but who do we listen to? The people who can’t vote but to whom the future belongs? Or the people who can vote and to whom the future of a single bit piece of land is all important?

A hard choice and that’s what responsibility’s all about.

Jim Hopkins is a Waitaki district councillor for the Oamaru ward