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Rotorua Chief Exec attempts to hijack policy review process

On 28 February Rotorua Lakes Council adopted the Operations and Monitoring Committee’s recommendation that “Council to go back to the drawing board and properly consider all management options including the staff proposal and development opportunities for the Aquatic Centre”.

On 6 March Aquatic Centre staff were informed that terms of reference had been determined for an “independent review to be undertaken by an expert panel” that would report to the 5 April meeting of O&M and the 26 April meeting of Council.

“The review proposed by the CE would be completed in less than a month,” said Glenys Searancke, Chair of RDRR. “That would be inconsistent with the requirement that Council properly consider all management options. Worse, the rush could be to tick off the ongoing implementation of outsourcing, and expose O&M members and councillors to being lobbied hard by senior officials until an outsourcing decision is made.”

She also noticed that the CE had changed the purpose of his proposed review to only reconsider the options which were already on the table. This, she said, would contradict the Council’s commitment to openness. It would specifically pre-empt the staff-community proposal being more fully developed and help justify the CE’s unwillingness to engage in co-design. The staff-community Progress Report called for a kaupapa of biculturalism and modern business management methods consistent with Council’s own bicultural policy and operative Long Term Plan that guarantees such respectful engagement. In effect, she said, officials refusing to co-design had vetoed the fuller development of the staff-community proposal.

“The review proposed by the CE arbitrarily closes off democratic participation by legitimate stakeholders,” said RDRR Secretary Reynold Macpherson. “The Progress Report was developed in three weeks by community-minded volunteers collaborating as Te Roopu Whakahaere (The Leadership Group). Sadly, the CE’s proposed process restricts engagement to AWUNZ, and therefore only to industrial issues. But it is not for a public official required to be politically neutral (by constitutional convention, the Public Service Act 1912, the Official Information Act 1982 and the Political Neutrality Guidance policy of the State Services Commission) to restrict the democratic engagement of citizens in the development of a new public policy.”

Dr Macpherson also noted that the review proposed by the CE seeks to engage “two independent, non-Council experts.” He argued that the scope of expertise is too limited and that an independent expert in kaupapa Māori was needed in Rotorua’s uniquely bicultural context. He also pointed to “reasonable doubts” about the independence of John Macrae because he is chairperson of the Rotorua Chamber of Commerce, which openly campaigned for the Mayor at the last local body elections, and “since then has been chairing the board of Infracore, a Council-controlled organisation which is widely rumoured to being prepared for outsourcing.”

“Since the basic public policy issue involved is outsourcing versus inhouse centre management for the Aquatic Centre,” he said, “it is implausible for a Council employee who is perceived to be a champion of outsourcing to be considered independent. At the very least his presence should be balanced by a national champion of inhouse aquatic centre management.”

“The review proposed by the CE provides advice and support to the ‘independent panel’ by “Steve Watene (RLC expert on Aquatic Centre Management and Development),” said RDRR Committee member Paddi Hodgkiss. “There are doubts about Mr Watene’s expertise and independence because his Section 17A Report was based on a biased sample of interviews, stakeholder surveys conducted for other purposes, and highly subjective so-called ‘desktop research’ and ‘benchmarking’. It did not include a critical review of the history of centre leadership in its corporate and community contexts.

Watene’s Operations Review Report read like a standard management check list without reference to current practices in the Centre, she said, and did not acknowledge that a major reason for the crisis in centre management was a failure of corporate leadership and support. His Management Report promised $700K return to Council in Year 1 of outsourcing, but that figure has since been whittled down by about $250K of projected redundancy costs and about $200K for changes to pay rates. His final Redevelopment Report added speculative futurism and cherry-picked justifications for outsourcing from other selected policy documents.

Above all, the RDRR takes the view that the review process proposed by the CE is restricted to the use of arbitrary RFP criteria that do not cohere well with kaupapa Māori commitments in the operative LTP or Resources Management Act. It will require substantial revision to be compliant.

Since each of these concerns could be reasons for considering a judicial review, should the Council’s decision for a thorough and open-ended review be hijacked by the CE’s proposed review processes, it is suggested that O&M substantially revise the approach proposed, and put outsourcing on hold until a new policy settlement attracting public support has been achieved.

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