Have you ever asked yourself what the role of a council or a councillor is? The answer might seem very complex when you consider they manage and control many functions to make our cities and regions function. Many have considered councils to be big and complex businesses and, as a consequence, we should elect councillors solely on basis of their commercial accumen. However, councils are democratic institutions and councillors are elected to represent and make decisions on behalf of and for the well-being of their communities.
The Local Government Act 2002 (s.10) provides a precise legal definition of the purpose and role of councillor. While this must be the hand that guides us, I believe we need to think in much wider terms about the role and the way in which a council and councillor should be performing their duties. In this respect, I believe the role of a council or councillor might best be defined within the context of stewardship.
Stewardship is a term that elevates the role from that of a manager. It is a term that embodies the responsible planning, managing, nurturing, protecting and sustaining of a city's or region's resources. It also implies that a councillor and the council must take responsibility for their actions. They are responsible and are accountable to ratepayers for their performance.
Stewardship is a form of guardianship. In Maori terms we can describe this as kaitiakitanga - caring for the resources (and the ratepayer contributions) entrusted to a person. Ultimately, it should be the objective of any steward to leave things better than when she or he first arrived. Perhaps this should be the test by which a council or councillor should be judged.
While stewardship provides the incumbent with power, it is only the power to perform the role assigned. Power is easily abused, and that's because it's often becomes subsumed within the individual, and not assigned to the role. Implied within the term is 'accountability', meaning that the office holder must be able to account for and provide reasons for the outcomes and decisions she or he has made.
Stewardship can be seen from two perspectives:
- The wise and prudent use of ratepayer funding
- Caring and maintaining shared environmental resources
Councils are in a very strong position when it comes to rates and rates increases. It is often perceived and often is the case that what the council says becomes the reality. While increases in rates may be justified, real and effective consultation, accountability and being able to clearly justify must also be part of the mix. Ultimately ratepayers must be part of the concensus about how and on what rates are used for. This may mean that decisions may take longer to make, but that is part of "democratic local decision-making".
The environment belongs to all and while everyone has a responsibility to respect and take care of our shared inheritance, councils have a particular responsibility (to the land, environment and ecology vested in a council by it's territorial boundaries). This particular responsibility is also stated within the Local Government Act.
The world now is a more complex place, we face decreased bio-diversity, water shortages, contamination and pollution. We are in the midst of a climate crisis and local councils must set the example and use their powers to either eliminate or mitigate the production of greenhouse gases. Such changes will come at a cost. But if we are to practice stewardship within an ethical framework and leave things better than when we first arrived for future generations, then we must seriusly address the issue.
It's about 'US'
We live in a world in which there is increased social unrest and division. More than ever we need to reverse the cynicism that's within local body politics. Stewardship cannot survive, let alone thrive in an environment where there is division and cynicism about motivations and purpose. We can only do that if we break down the 'us' and 'them' barriers that silo us into often angry and opposing tribes.
The politics of stewardship must be based on the 'we' - all of us together, and not the us and them. After all, there is no way we can solve the problems that surround us. The politics of stewardship must be based upon a 'win-win-win' scenario.
Much of the cynicism and the 'us' and 'them' mentality is a consequence of councils' inability to communicate and to be responsive to the needs of their constituents. It is an example of institutional politics and is not what ratepayers and voters expect now. This should not be how local body politics operates in the twenty-first century. It does not create great councils and it does nothing to promote stewardship.
Purpose of local government
The purpose of local government is -
- to enable democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities; and
- to promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities in the present and for the future.
s.10 Local Government Act 2002