Esther Whitehead - My first two months as a QLDC Councillor
Reader contributuion/opinion - from Esther Whitehead, new QLDC Councillor.
Compiled during lockdown 2.0. Esther Whitehead reflects on her first 2 months as a Councillor on QLDC. She was inspired to write this whilst reading her son’s library book- The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever (the 6th book in the series). Esther writes.. “I have struggled with how best to communicate with our community in my first 2 months, this is one method. This is both a love letter to local democracy (why I stood) and a closer look under the bonnet at the challenging bits! In the absence of being taught the job; I found reflecting on the job (sometimes with humour) was helpful to me to learn to understand my role and my relationships with others. I still have much to learn and I will continue to reflect”
A Tuesday in mid-June 2021
Well, that by-election was a bit of a roller coaster ride. First there was one, then just the two of us, then a third candidate who dropped out a week after she put herself forward. This evening we went to Dorothy Brown's Cinema where I saw Phil Wilson (my rival candidate) on the big screen, in a fabulous advert about a retirement village - and, although he lost the by-election, he looks like he’s winning at life! Nice one Phil!
Wednesday June 30th
So today is the day I was sworn in. I am officially a Councillor on QLDC! It’s also the day that I am requested to officially cast a vote as an elected member of our council. Thrown in at the deep end- It would have been nice to have an induction prior to this but I am not afraid to learn on the job! The full council meeting had a hefty agenda (quite normal, though, I am told). With over 300 pages plus appendices, and some complex issues that required much greater background knowledge beyond the basics. I abstained where I felt like I may be compromising good governance because of a lack of knowledge. I was told afterwards ‘I hope you don’t make a habit of that’ - well, no that’s not my intention but, thank you, I think that was my induction.
Thursday 1st July (the day after my first vote)
Today the ODT wrongly reported that I abstained from approving the Statement of Intent (SOI) on Queenstown Airport...I tried to work out how this happened. Internal or external comm’s? Fortunately, I had the presence of mind in the council meeting yesterday to request that the chair record my vote AGAINST the SOI and so I asked that the fake news be retracted and re-reported correctly...it’s an important first lesson in meeting proceedings and how they’re recorded. Had I not requested that, the ODT would have had no recorded evidence of how I voted. Whilst I can’t control the majority vote and therefore the final decision, I can ensure my view is clear for the community to see.
Monday mid July 2021
Today I went to Specsavers and they have given me a new mono-vision contact lens setup. This is where one eye is working at short range and the other at long. I head to a council workshop and feel very disoriented and a little uneasy (like I am on a boat). I can’t work out if it’s the eyes or the effects of an ‘interesting’ dynamic playing out before me. Am I the only one seeing this? Shouldn't have gone to Specsavers!
The next day
I reflect on yesterday and try to prioritise what’s important. I remind myself of the The Local Government Act 2002:
(1) 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.
Wed 14 July 2021
Good news: Today I got my first paycheck from the council.
Bad news: It works out that my hourly rate of pay is about $8.50 per hour. I am confident few do this for the money (remuneration is determined from Central Government and is based broadly on ratepayer base so, for example, the same role in Wellington would be substantially more, even if the complexity isn’t) but I am reflecting on how I will need to prioritise my time and who will likely stand in next year’s local elections. We need good citizens who want to make a difference, and with the right support, I’d like to think that we can attract people from all walks of life, not just those people who can afford the role. I have had a few people speak to me about Local Elections 2022...c’mon it could be you! There’s no sugar coating here, but know that the role is a privileged one, a fascinating one, and ultimately, an important one.
Tues 20th July 2021
The Gorge Rd Bike Park has been receiving quite some media attention as it should. However, the park itself is the third party in an arrangement between two other parties: The Council and the Queenstown Mountain Bike Club. There is reason to protect it on the basis that it’s a community facility but as with many of these issues, it was an outlier in the negotiations and neither party argued for a reason to save it. Many of us supported the move to save it but in the end, Councillors found out by social media that Rod Drury had saved the bike park, having struck a deal with Jim Boult...wasn’t expecting to find out that way! It’s not a council process I am familiar with. ‘Roderick Rules' is the second book in The Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise. I think we could dedicate a whole book’s worth to Roderick Rules, don’t you?
Tuesday late July 2021
In preparation for the next Full Council Meeting, where Ladies Mile is on the agenda. I meet with community members who are concerned about the development...what I soon realise is that many people that I speak to don’t realise that regardless of the Council led approach to develop Ladies Mile, the current landowners can develop the northern side of the highway and that with no action from the council led approach, this is inevitable. I wonder how we can better communicate so that our community knows that if we don’t adopt the council approach, we will still be developing Ladies Mile but just in more of a piece meal approach. I live in Frankton, where I can live, work and play. This means that I don’t ever have to face the traffic issues. Good urban design to me is all about walkability and bikeability. To alleviate our traffic issues, we need to get 4/10 people out of their cars. I do think this is possible. I’d like to see Frankton Flats becoming higher density residential living...I am a YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard). We need more housing supply in the district whether we like it or not...and we need different typologies of houses to slow down the sprawl. When we can walk to school, to work and to entertainment we buy ourselves time, we reduce carbon emissions, and we create more liveable spaces.
Wednesday 29th July 2021
Today’s full council meeting had me voting on an amendment to the Ladies Mile council led approach in an attempt to pause the process and review transport issues. The recommendations seemed untenable to me, vote to go ahead with the council led approach or vote against. An amendment (seemingly our only option) was a pitiful attempt to hear the concerns of the community whilst meeting the needs of the community. We seem hamstrung. Whilst sanctimoniously biking home from town in the rain, I got my waterproof trousers stuck in my chain, had to remove them, was soaked to the core, and wished I was in my car!
Friday early August 2021
If you’re unsure about anything just ask. Well, that’s lovely, so I do. Oh, but don’t ask that, or that! Ah ok! Got it!
The following week 2021…
.....started with my first councillor bashing. After being voted one of the ‘top’ councillors on a local media page, I took my first bashing publicly and then via direct messages from this sorrowful stalker who labelled me a socialist and then asked me to prove which communist states have been successful. After many similar questions, I respectfully told him that it was reported that I was a ‘social activist’ in one newspaper, presumably because I started a food rescue programme but that I don’t identify as a socialist. He suggested we catch up for a drink, to have a ‘proper’ discussion so that he could ask me lots of questions, and I said that I am only a socialist drinker. You mean social? He asked. No, I said, I only drink when someone else is paying!
Monday 16 August 2021
Oh Lakeview! Today I pencilled a letter to Minister Parker opposing Fast Tracking for the Lakeview development, the fast tracking is out of our hands, (other than to ask the developers to respect our Council wishes) this is an option that the developers can legally choose since central government provided the post-Covid fast track option. It’s considerably more complicated than I had thought. This is a minefield!
Tues 17th August
Lockdown begins. Zoom resumes. Husbands and children full-time. Dog is very happy.
Tues 24th August.
Cabin Fever has set in (decreased motivation, increased Netflix, Narcolepsy tendencies) but it gives me time to digest some of the massive issues before the council. The Three Waters Reform is one which is close to my heart. Our climate future means that we require strong adaptation, regulation, and democracy around water issues, all fundamental to people’s wellbeing.
The government is proposing to reform the drinking, waste and stormwater (three waters) sector. The reform will involve amalgamating the water services of the 67 local authorities into four new regional statutory corporations, (1 for the whole South Island) with centralised management and a new governance structure. The structure will have indirect Board appointment rights for local authorities to be shared with mana whenua representatives.
The government has given QLDC two choices, join the Reform Scenario or Opt-Out. Local authorities have been asked by the government to consider the evidence and whether the government’s proposal to reform the water sector will deliver benefits to its residents. The key question is whether the benefits for QLDC that are claimed by the government are robust, and whether the Lakes communities are likely to be better off with the Reform Scenario. I understand why we need reform; many local authorities simply can’t afford the infrastructure demands ahead of them which will compromise water, health and our environment. Other than opting out, the Reform Scenario is the only option on the table. This binary approach has led QLDC and all Mayors and Chairs of Otago & Southland (Zone 6) to write to the Minister and request a pause to give us more time. There are reports that have shown that the Reform Scenario is founded on unsound evidence and faulty analysis. You can find local info and the letter from Zone 6 Mayors here. Ironically, this seems to have unified thinking around the local table. Perhaps in the same way that siblings argue until commanded by a parent that both are in the wrong and favouritism will not be given. The parent then becomes the bad cop much like Central Government. There have been murmurs that ‘this is being done to us, not with us’ and ‘we don’t have a choice’ which, to me, sounds very similar to what our community says of local council. What can we learn from this? The reality is that there is always a bad cop though!
Thursday 26th August 2021
Mayor Jim Boult has made a statement in Mountain Scene today about the Lakeview Development. I wasn’t expecting that! We usually get notified on media releases. Even if it's technically correct, its wholly positive spin has led to a backlash. I think not acknowledging the complications and costs doesn’t help with public trust. Unfortunately, Jim did that all by himself, whilst I respect his intention to provide confidence, I am not convinced it has.
Wed 1st Sep 2021
Spring has sprung, the snow is melting fast (hottest NZ Winter on record) and each day I went skiing cost about $200.
Monday 6th Sep 2021
4.16pm. Woohoo level 2 announced! Reflections from ‘Cabin Fever’ must come to an end, sequels will follow, no doubt. Take your pick, will it be The Long Haul, Roderick Rules or The Getaway?