More questions raised over sacking of Ecan council

A senior government official was placed in a difficult position today when publicly questioned about his thoughts on the Government's sacking of Environment Canterbury councillors.

Fronting a Parliamentary local government select committee, Local Government Minister Rodney Hide and Internal Affairs secretary Brendan Boyle were asked by Green MP Sue Kedgley about the cost of the commissioners who have temporarily replaced the councillors.

The council was controversially sacked following a damning independent report released to Mr Hide and Environment Minister Nick Smith in February on what was described as a woeful performance in administering water management responsibilities and resource consent processes.

Ms Kedgley asked Mr Hide today how he could justify paying the commissioners between $900 and $1400 a day for their work -- several times more than what councillors were paid.

"There's a big job to do in sorting out Environment Canterbury," he said. "I would have to say, if we get that right, the costs you are talking about are insignificant."

Ms Kedgley then asked Mr Boyle the same question. "That was the price that was within the framework for the fees and charges for roles of that nature and for people of that experience," Mr Boyle said.

Ms Kedgley said she had Official Information Act documents suggesting Mr Boyle had misgivings about the sacking of the Ecan councillors.

"I'm asking whether you have any concerns about sacking a council in the way that it was done?"

Mr Hide said a government official was not obliged to answer such a question.

"I think you put officials who will serve a Labour government or a National-led government, whatever, in a very difficult position if you are asking them to justify what was a decision made by ministers and cabinet."

The exchange was stopped by committee chairman Chris Auchinvole and Ms Kedgley asked if Mr Hide had plans to alter other local councils in line with the situation in Auckland, or disestablish regional councils.

Mr Hide said he didn't envisage that, but debate on the issue was needed as the burden placed on small councils by decisions made at central government level was becoming difficult to bear.

"It's one thing if you are a big metropolitan council with a large staff and a large rating base, but when you are a smaller council with a budget of seven or $10 million, then it becomes impossible even to have the expertise.

Sharing of services, for example between regional and local councils, was helping in some cases, but the functions expected of councils now, compared to 20 or 30 years ago, was "massive".

Mr Hide said there was a need to get a strong relationship going between central government and both the new Auckland super city and other councils around the country.

He said he wasn't looking to make decisions on the constitutional future of councils, but a discussion document on the issue was being developed and would be released next year.

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