Analysis: Wellington City Council the place where no one wants to be


Wellington City Council is a place where no one wants to be right now, with Mayor Andy Foster calling the culture “sub-optimal”.

Councillor Nicola Young was not so diplomatic in her characterisation of the situation, saying being on council has become intolerable and she’s just trying to keep out of the “splatter zone”.

The council is a house that’s on fire and Foster undoubtedly will be hoping his announcement of an independent review today will douse the flames.

“It doesn’t take rocket science to work out that it is a very challenging environment”, Foster told media.

In many ways it feels like taking this sort of action has been a long time coming.

Just a few months after Foster was elected as Mayor of Wellington, the Herald revealed he jetted off to Queenstown to attend a $30,000 leadership course.

Then, during the Covid-19 lockdown he brought in a facilitator in an attempt to sort out his divided council.

But it seems nothing could stop the slow-moving train wreck the council has become.

Foster maintained calling in a facilitator was a valuable process at a difficult time and he said his decision today was a “leadership action”.

It’s time to lance the boil.

Foster chose to officially announce the review at a full council meeting this morning, although it was clear some councillors knew more than others in advance.

Despite this, when asked to stand in support of the action, they all did.

Notably councillor Fleur Fitzsimons was one of the first to do so.

She has been in a war of words with Foster over the past few days about his last-minute proposal to privatise part of the Central Library building.

But the unity of all 15 elected members on their feet was not to last.

Foster’s office then issued a press advisory with a copy of his speech and details of a 1pm press conference, which said Wellington City Councillors would be attending.

Except it appears several councillors didn’t get the memo.

After this came to light on social media, Foster’s office emailed all councillors to “confirm” they were all welcome to attend the press conference in support of the review.

In the end, not many of them showed up.

Foster was flanked by Deputy Mayor Sarah Free and Councillor Diane Calvert.

Councillor Malcolm Sparrow was awkwardly beckoned to pull up a chair next to where they were seated, while Councillor Simon Woolf sat on the sidelines.

Councillor Iona Pannett was running a little late and chose to sit behind journalists.

Apparently Foster has been considering how to handle an “undercurrent of issues” since Christmas.

Foster said he has some candidates in mind to undertake the review, but would not elaborate further, nor would he say whether an individual or team would be appointed.

The review will be backdated to cover the last few months and will start as soon as possible.

Foster described last week’s chaotic Long Term Plan meeting as adding to the overall narrative.

He said it was pure coincidence that he announced the review this morning after the Local Government Minister yesterday passed comment on the situation when asked by media on her way to a caucus meeting.

It’s clear Minister Nanaia Mahuta has no appetite for appointing commissioners at Wellington City Council, as of yet.

“I certainly don’t want to be the Minister for Local Government commissions and my preference is to ensure that local government and councils have the ability to undertake other avenues to be able to strengthen their governance or seek advice and support”, she said.

Foster finds himself backed into a corner yet again.

Last time it was over the city’s water woes when he abruptly announced a mayoral taskforce into the issue to find his way out of criticism he was missing in action.

He might manage to cool things off this time around, but whether it will be his saving grace is an entirely different question.

The findings of the review could very well point the finger back at him.

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