Democracy is under attack in Southland

Southland District Council propose
removing CDAs

By Tim Hanna

Frana Cardno, one of the best loved mayors to ever serve in this country, left Southland with a gift of immeasurable power and value. By creating a network of what came to be known as Community Development Area Sub Committees, or CDAs, she put in place an effective and highly efficient conduit between the council and the wide spread local communities it served. 

The system worked well, although like all systems there were always areas for improvements. For example, in Lumsden, fixing a broken toilet seat and toilet roll holder in the hall proved such a difficult and time wasting affair when it came to prompting the Council to authorise the expenditure that locals just went ahead and paid for it themselves. Clearly those sorts of problems could have been easily solved by Council authorising CDA’s to make minor expenditures that would be settled by the council upon receipt of a forwarded invoice along with a brief job description. 

In the same way council could have undertaken to always consult with CDA’s when anything involving council happened in their area, something that very conspicuously did not happen when the Tong council authorised an extensive gravel collection operation from the Oreti River on Dipton’s doorstep. They did consult with six organisations including Fish and Game but judged that the effects of having a major operation creating noise, dust, heavy truck traffic and a ruined riverside just a kilometre away from the town for at least 10 years were so insignificant they did not bother to consult with the local CDA, or even inform them.

In both these instances a change in operational procedures on the part of council could have solved the problem. Other problems included some folk being outside boundaries, again a simple adjustment of boundaries would have solved that, and council officers being obliged to attend far flung meetings. Again simple to fix – don’t attend unless requested.   

Under the axiom that seemed to infect the Labour party in the 1980’s that the public can’t be trusted and that elected officials must be governed by highly paid corporate career CEOs and managers, costs spiralled and democracy retreated. The cost of local government in the country blew out from 3.5 billion a year to just under 11 billion today and local government debt grew fivefold to 15 billion. At the same time long and short term decisions increasingly became the responsibility of appointed rather than elected officials, people who were not accountable for their decisions to the electorate. 

Southland controlled its debt better than most but rising administrative costs have I believe contributed greatly to the decline throughout Southland of vital infrastructure including bridges, roads, wastewater schemes and so on.  We now face a further erosion of basic democracy and a further explosion of costs as a result of this ever expanding corporatisation.

Proposed new Community Board boundaries show the enormous areas they will have to represent with the elimination of local CDA’s by the Tong Council.

Mayor Tong and his supporters have been going after the CDA’s and just like the man who burned down his house to get rid of the mice they have decided to burn down the entire representative structure. They called it reform and the process began when council bureaucrats were dispatched to inform the 19 CDA’s,  one at a time, that all the others CDA’s were all on board with a plan to disestablish them and replace them with hugely expanded Community Boards. It was only when extremely concerned representatives from the CDAs gathered for a meeting in Lumsden that they discovered they were being played for saps. In fact all thirty odd CDA members who attended including a dozen CDA chair people discovered that contrary to what Tong’s people had been telling them those present were unanimously opposed to the plan. Submissions were made and meetings were held while all the time Tong assured the communities that nothing would happen until after the elections under the incoming council.

However Tong and his supporters are now talking as if it is already an established fact and there is no doubt that if he is returned the CDAs will be gone regardless of the consensus of the submissions. The main effect of the change if Tong gets the chance to drive it through will be to eliminate unpaid volunteers from the system and replace them with paid, albeit hardly paid for the moment, Community Board members who will have no chance whatsoever of keeping abreast of the day to day needs of the huge areas they represent and the numerous different communities within them.  

Inevitably the salaries paid to Community Board members will rise as the hours they are obliged to put into the job rise and I believe that with equal inevitability they will soon become yet another layer of bureaucrats answerable to council.

Perhaps the most obnoxious aspect of Tong’s pronouncements to date on the subject has been his insistence that his moves will ‘heavily reduce levels of bureaucracy’.  I find it highly offensive that those drawn to serve their communities out of a sense of loyalty, who get nothing in return for their service beyond the satisfaction of seeing their work benefiting the place where they live, can be dismissed in such an odious fashion. 

These people are not time wasting bureaucrats as Tong describes them.  They are the people who show quiet leadership, who work together in fellowship to achieve good things for their communities and who ask nothing in return. They are exactly the opposite of time wasting bureaucrats. However a heavily corporatized bureaucracy may well have disliked the CDA’s precisely because the good citizens on CDAs can be argumentative and even stroppy in defence of things they believed in. 

When the Lumsden the CDA actioned a Freedom Camping initiative that allowed these folk to stay in designated areas around the historic railway station council officers interfered in ways that were petty, authoritarian and unnecessary. Among other things they tried with aggressive persistence to get rid of a duly appointed and properly warranted local who had been entrusted with the task of liaising with campers to welcome them, to educate them about the rules governing their stay and to solve any difficulties that might arise. 

Although this gentleman and his much loved Labrador had performed an exemplary job at no cost and with no problems arising of any significance council officials were determined to take back his warrant and replace him with professional security guards from Invercargill. With the weight of the CDA behind him the local ambassador remained firmly in place. It is possible that such examples of defiance fuelled the decision by the council to burn the house down.  

If I become mayor I shall do everything I can to restore Frana Cardno’s wonderful, democratic legacy –the 19 CDAs. I will also improve them in the ways that I have already discussed and then I will hope that nobody else ever comes along to try to take strike another another match.

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