Guest Post: Stephanie Cook and the case for term limits in NZ Local Government

This is a guest post from ‘Wellington Citizen’ – who wishes to remain anonymous due to their employment.

Normally I wouldn’t support term limits.  While presented as a technique to ensure greater accountability of elected officials to the public, in practice they actually strip voters of the right to chose the best qualified candidate.

In general it should be the voters who decide whether or not an elected official has served for too long, not the operation of an arbitrary term limit that treats the excellent, the mediocre and the terrible exactly the same.

However, the recent conduct of Stephanie Cook makes me wonder whether it is time for New Zealand to consider term limits for local government.  Phil Quin makes an eloquent case for seeing Ms Cook as a councillor who has been complete captured by officials.  An elected representative who sees her first loyalty to the officials she is meant to be exercising governance over, on our behalf, rather than to us the ratepayers of the city.

Stephanie Cook is proud to have been on council for 16 years.  Despite this long service she is rated as one of the worst performing councillors in Wellington.

At the last council election, Stephanie Cook received 1077 first preference votes: the fourth highest number of first preferences.  There were 28,268 eligible electors in the Lambton Ward of the Wellington City Council.  This means Stephanie Cook was chosen by less than 4% of Lambton residents as their first choice representative.  Less than 4%, after 16 years of service.  On the basis of this “mandate” she receives a ratepayer funded salary of at least $89,925 (the sum she received last financial year).

Such low turnout suggests a major democratic deficit on the Wellington City Council.  The existing councillors are re-elected election after election on the basis of incumbency and name recognition.  This has to change.  A limit in consecutive terms is a blunt instrument, but this week’s events suggest it is necessary.

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8 responses to “Guest Post: Stephanie Cook and the case for term limits in NZ Local Government

  1. Pingback: The Great 2013 Cook Off | The New Tasman·

  2. I’m not sure I agree term limits are the answer. I’d quite like to see Ian McKinnon stay on for a very long time, he’s hard working and reasonable. I’m sure there’s a certain sort of unreasonable weirdo our there that feels the same about Bryan Pepperell.

    Stephanie Cook and Helene Ritchie on the other hand need a solution other than a term limit. We need more coverage of councilor performance by traditional and new media. While the Wellingtonian community paper probably helped sink Haley Wain, we need much more coverage and comment during the term. Also better info on potential councilors would be very helpful. Had Wellingtonians had better information about Cook and Ritchie’s non-performance perhaps we’d have a better council.

    While a least Ritchie promised nothing last election, she has heartily delivered. It’s worth remembering that Cook’s only policy was to have community gardens and more fruit trees or some such silly idea. A year on what’s she done on this? Perhaps a LGOIA is in order.

  3. Less than 4%, after 16 years of service. On the basis of this “mandate” she receives a ratepayer funded salary of at least $89,925 (the sum she received last financial year). Such low turnout suggests a major democratic deficit on the Wellington City Council.

    No it doesn’t — it’s STV, which we’ve decided to use in Wellington, and which determined that on average (more or less) across all voters having considered other rankings, she’s still more preferred than candidates who came after her. What’s wrong with that? It’s our form of democracy. Saying it was a “low turnout” is also misleading. It was a 37% voter turnout in the Lambton Ward, which by national election standards is low but certainly not by local government standards compared with previous elections. The only thing “low” was her first preference votes, but that’s FPP fanaticism in an STV election, where first preferences aren’t all-over important and where people whose first preferences didn’t make it get to indicate who they’d prefer instead. Stephanie Cook picked up enough second, third and fourth preferences from everyone below her who completely failed to get elected, so what’s the problem?

    I think this anonymous Wellington citizen should be looking more closely at the technical details of how STV works and weighs candidates, and then explaining why it’s unfair, as opposed to claiming that things aren’t working because one candidate whom he or she doesn’t like has managed to remain elected. If voters are misinformed about a candidate’s past performance, then chances are that doesn’t represent to a fault in the voting system.

  4. MikeM – I agree with your criticism of the ‘FPP-fetishism” that seems to underpin some of the comments.
    You do overstate your case somewhat when you say turnout in Lambton wasn’t low. At 35.89% percent it was the lowest in any ward in Wellington (see http://www.wellington.govt.nz/haveyoursay/elections/returns.html).

    It also compares very poorly to turnout of over 50% in Auckland, Dunedin and even Christchurch where the election took place in the aftermath of the first earthquake. Turnout of 35.89% is low, and just saying it isn’t is not really a compelling argument.

    The result of such low turnout does translate into the results for the elected candidate.
    In all wards other than Lambton and Northern, the lowest winning candidate received at least 10% of the eligible vote. In Northern, Councillor Ritchie won with 9.4%. Councillor Cook’s total vote was 8.14%.

    This is not a criticism of Councillor Cook, as seems so fashionable right now. Personally I think she has served the city well and I ranked her as my second candidate (note I did not “vote for her” I used my single (althrough transferable) vote to vote for Councillor Pannett . As Councillor Pannett’s preferences were not distributed it wouldn’t have mattered to whom I had allocated my second preference).

    There is a problem with low turnout in local government elections in Wellington. Term limits wouldn’t do anything to fix this.

  5. Thanks David, I’ll accept what you’ve said regarding the turnout. Granted I was thinking generally that local body elections are typically lower turnouts than national elections, but I should also have checked more carefully about the typical turnout. I’d like it to be higher, but I don’t think Stephanie Cook can or should be blamed if people won’t get off their couches during the voting period and vote her out. And those who do bother to vote appear to prefer her, or at least did in 2010.

    On that note I’ve been trying to find the Lambton Ward turnout for 2007 for comparison, but the 2007 results website doesn’t seem to state it. In the linked documents there were 9517 accepted votes cast in the first round, but I can’t find an indication of the proportion of eligible voters that year. 2010 has 10041 valid votes listed in the first round though (probably lower than those returned as some would’ve been invalid), which suggests a larger turnout for Lambton in 2010 than 2007, unless the ward’s grown a lot over three years of course.

  6. This is not a criticism of Councillor Cook, as seems so fashionable right now. Personally I think she has served the city well and I ranked her as my second candidate

    What’s she done?

  7. She’s been a voice of reason on a conservative dominated council for 15 years. She’s fought hard against lots of bad ideas, unfortunately she hasn’t had the support. Hopefully this is going to change.

    • She may have been a voice, but it was only a whisper. More tellingly she described herself as a single vote. Had she worked harder with capable left councilors like Pannett and Wade-Brown perhaps should could have made a difference. But she didn’t.

      While you may hope she’ll get the support she obviously requires to make an impact, we’d expect to have seen that by now a year after Wade-Brown’s election as Mayor. But alas Cook is still a whisper.

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