Steve McLennan
Steve McLennan

Greed, Lies & Violent Clashes

On the night of 10 October 1998, three friends and I heard we'd been successfully elected to the Hamilton City Council. (For non-New Zealand readers, Hamilton is a city of 120,000, an hour-and-a-half south of Auckland and home of the infamous University of Political Correctness at Waikato.)

We were elated-the planning and hard work of the year prior had paid off. We toasted our success with considerable enthusiasm. Later that night at the home of our Mayor-elect, we ate, drank and chatted with other successful candidates, some of whom we had never met and others whom we thought we knew reasonably well.

Despite the rollicking good time I was having, I began hearing comments that shocked me. Upon proclaiming that I would't be drinking alcohol at the ratepayers' expense, I was met with the response from a rather portly chap (a successful candidate whom I'd never met before), "Bugger, get into it mate, that's what it's there for," or something along those lines. On several other occasions the comment was made to me (usually by successful incumbents), "Just sit back for a while, mate, until you find your feet — don't go jumping in there trying to change everything at once." This was in stark contrast to their "That's-exactly-the-kind-of-thinking-we-need-on-this-Council" rhetoric prior to the election. And in another event that evening, one of my three successful friends, Garry, was attacked by a large, tattooed woman. As she threw her considerable bulk in Garry's direction, fists flailing, she was apparently heard screaming "rich bastards" or "capitalist scumbags" or something to that effect. It transpired that she was the partner of one of our rivals — a staunch leftist who was the only successful candidate from a staunch leftist ticket.

I now look back on that night as if it set the scene for what was to come: greed, lies and violent clashes.


Greed Pt 1: Salaries

The day after the election we were asked to meet with the Mayor-elect and a few of his colleagues who had been successfully re-elected. It was a clandestine meeting to decide who would get which chairmanship of Council's standing committees. The chairman holds considerable power so we thought it advantageous to have as many of our people in these positions — despite feeling slightly dirty being involved in this meeting. We got three. I was to chair the District Plan Review Committee (which deals with planning ordinances) — an area I was very interested in and keen to see dealt with properly.

Unfortunately, when the committee chairs were formally set, I was not officially sworn-in (owing to a small electoral problem that was soon sorted out) and could not be placed in a chair, so Council resolved to hold off setting the committee. I was, however, chosen to represent Council on the board of a joint-venture company building a $26 million hotel in downtown Hamilton — this was very last minute, not part of the earlier dirty deal and because of my commercial property experience. I was always opposed to Council's involvement in this venture and saw my role as one of identifying how quickly Council could divest its shareholding.

Later the next month, I was keen to have the District Plan Review committee established. Our partners in the dirty deal were not. The reason? I would be earning more than them. The hotel company directorship came with a director's fee of $12,000 per annum. A committee chair is paid about that much more than an ordinary councillor.

I said I would go without the director's fee or the committee chair salary. I was told that would make the others look silly. I didn't get the chairmanship.

Greed Pt 2: Buying the vote

A councillor recently put up a proposal to purchase a Salvation Army-owned hall — it is entirely coincidental that the building is in his ward (the area in which people voted for him) and that his son attends scouts there. It was envisaged that the hall could be turned into a "community house" — something which we have several of around town, at huge expense and little benefit — at a cost of slightly less than the sum earmarked for such a facility in future years. This action in itself is bad enough, but a comment by another councillor (from a different ward) was worse.

A few of us were out on the ninth floor balcony, enjoying a cigarette, when the hall purchase was raised. The comment was made: "I don't want to support him for this, but I'm going to because I want his support for purchasing a community house in my ward.".

Now, everyone knows this kind of horse-trading goes on in politics, but when you see it for yourself and it's presented to you in such a matter-of-fact, this-is-how-it-works kind of way, it leaves you feeling sick. The amount of money these specimens were playing with was nearly $800,000 — more than either of them could have ever dreamt of playing with outside of Council.


Lies Pt 1: Selective morality

When debating a policy item recently, one councillor decided to become the guardian of people's "rights of private property." I asked myself how this guy could even mention property rights when he was one of a number who recently decided that it was appropriate for the District Plan to include design restraints on buildings at the main entrances to the city, in the interests of creating a good first impression, you see? The policy item related to the placement of election signs on Council-owned verges outside people's residences. My friends and I looked at each other aghast. How could this guy blatantly call Council-owned verges "private property" and then argue for property rights given his disdain for it as illustrated above? No doubt it was easy for him to do, especially when it's clearly in the interests of standing candidates. With the exception of the four of us, nobody in the room batted an eye.

Lies Pt 2: "Economic Benefits"

The use of economic multiplier analysis as a means to prove the worth of Council-funded projects is another lie used to cloud the truth. One such example is the "Millennium Bridge and Promenade" project recently put forward by the former Mayor's "Millennium Committee." As part of their case to receive the $14 million required for the project, a report was included from an economics professor at the University of Waikato. The report concluded that the economic benefits from the project would be considerable.

Never, at any time, have I ever seen an economic assessment of the negative impact of the additional rates required from citizens, in any report. Attempts to convince other councillors that this is a problem are a waste of time.

Lies Pt 3: How to "Encourage" others

The word "encourage" is used a lot in Council. In Hamilton's Integrated Transport Strategy (HITS), the word is used to describe how we should "encourage" people to use alternative modes of transport, like buses. In order to "encourage" people, HITS suggests we should have bus-only lanes and corners, so people driving motorcars are sent the long way around the block. When we use the word "encourage," we are lying. To me, "encourage" in this context, means to severely restrict or inhibit the actions of people so as to create an unnatural advantage for the 'preferred' option.

The use of such soft language with potent outcomes is common in the reports we receive. Other examples include:

Violent Clashes

This is an area where I must admit some wrongdoing. Yes, the frustration of having to deal with people whose sole purpose in life is to be loved by all at any expense to others is enough to make you wanna bop 'em right on the ol' nose.

Violent Clashes Pt 1: Sticks and stones...

During debate on the District Plan Review, the matter of "Significant Trees" was an item on the agenda. We tried to get rid of the whole thing and failed. So we put up an amendment to ensure that if Council wished to place a tree on the register, it would have to obtain the consent of the owner (which it currently doesn't have to do). When four councillors voted against the amendment (indicating that they wanted to retain the ability to walk all over the owner's rights) I muttered "fascists," as they lost the vote.

The arguments, demands for apologies and badgering of the chairman to have me censured that followed were hilarious. One of them was packing his bags, saying he was leaving if this is the way Council business was to be conducted — as if anyone wanted him to stay. I'm the first to admit that perhaps it was a little naughty of me, but the wailing and gnashing of teeth that followed my comment was pathetic. Once I had enjoyed enough of the spectacle I apologised and everything was okay for the poor dears.

What's important is that these people had just tried to trample all over others' rights of private property — others who weren't in the room to look them in the eye and tell them what fascists they were — and they couldn't stand a little name calling.

Violent Clashes Pt 2: Meet the ratepayers

We've just completed a three-yearly review of the rating system. A community task force recommended a change. Council accepted some of their recommendations but not all — specifically a reduction in the commercial differentials, which would have given Hamilton's commercial sector much needed relief from what are already the highest commercial rates in the country. We have 3,000 commercial and 38,000 residential ratepayers and, with the outcome of Council's rating review, the commercial sector will pay 41.3% of the total rate take (up from 39% previously). As we went through the process of reviewing the rating system, councillors regularly asked the question: what effect will this change have on residential ratepayers?

We have recently held several meet-the-public meetings. Predictably, they were well attended by commercial ratepayers.

What a joy to watch my big-spending, anti-business colleagues get an earful from a bunch of guys who really knew how to give-it-to-'em!

At one point I suggested to the room that the only reason they've copped it so bad was that there are only 3,000 of them and that councillors are only interested in the voting populace. A colleague leant over and whispered in my ear: "That's the last time you'll ever get any support from me on anything you want you little bastard." An admission of liability if I ever heard one.

One commercial ratepayer was nearly in tears at what was going to happen to him. The next day, I suggested to a few of my colleagues that it was interesting to see the consequences of one's big-spending actions. To my amazement, they tried to argue their case.

I can still sit down and chat or go out for dinner with these people, despite considering several of them morally corrupt and evil. I still hold on to this naïve belief that they will change their ways if I can show
them that they're harming people — people with mortgages to pay, kids to feed, clothe and send to school, employees to keep on, etc. I am fast losing hope of achieving this.

There's only one thing that stands in the way: the fact that re-election means re-employment. They have no other jobs to go to.

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