Trust, values and changing your mind in local politics
For those who oppose the development at Shelly Bay, the Council decision this week was a blow that has left them feeling hurt and disappointed. I have been asked several times for an explanation of why I voted in support of the sale and lease of council land, particularly given I was on record in an Enterprise Miramar survey during the election campaign as being against the development.
In particular, this comment from Benoit Pette really stuck with me: “While I acknowledge it was a hard decision, and while I appreciate the efforts some have made in explaining their reasoning, I still can’t make sense of how you can possibly have been elected on a position of opposing the development and then vote the other way. For me, the fate of Shelly Bay is pretty bad right now, but what is worse is the collapse of my trust in local democracy.”
Benoit is asking a much broader question than just why I voted the way I did. He is asking how can he have trust in the process of local democracy when candidates say one thing but vote differently once they are councillors?
As a candidate for city council you get many requests to answer surveys from different interest groups. Often these are about very specific issues that, as a candidate, you simply cannot be as well informed about as a sitting councillor. Nonetheless, I wanted to be as transparent as possible during the campaign so I did my best to give thoughtful answers to every survey I received. From memory I only refused to answer one survey, because their yes/no question was framed as: “Do you agree with us or are you a horrible person?”
By their nature these surveys reduce incredibly complex issues down to a straight yes/no answer. Sometimes those questions are designed carefully and thoughtfully. Sometimes, they are designed as traps.
I remember agonising about my response to the Enterprise Miramar survey. It was certainly reducing an incredibly complex issue down to a set of yes/no questions. It was an issue where I was certain I could not have all the relevant information or understand all the levels of complexity as a candidate. That said, the questions didn’t seem badly designed and there was certainly significant public interest in the issue. It didn’t feel right to not answer it.
As part of the survey, not only were candidates asked a series of yes/no questions, we were also given the opportunity to provide a short statement. I decided that this would help provide context to inform voters about my stance on Shelly Bay and would allow for some nuance given that my stance was never “absolutely no, never, under no circumstances”.
Here is the statement I made at this time:
“There have been a number of suggestions that council’s decision to designate a Special Housing Area and its decision to consider the sale or lease of its own land was based on incomplete or incorrect information. This requires an independent investigation. As a matter of good governance, if council had poor information, those decisions should be revisited with complete information.
“WCC should put off a decision about the sale or lease of council land and the contribution of $10 million in infrastructure costs until the concerns of iwi group Mau Whenua about the initial sale of their land have been legally resolved.
“Given Shelly Bay is fairly remote from transport and other amenities, it is not well located for increasing residential density.”
Since I made that statement to Enterprise Miramar I have, as expected, developed a greater understanding of the complexities of the decision. I have also received a lot more information, and the concerns I held at the time have been addressed to my satisfaction.
The design of the development has improved to allow for the effects of sea level rise and exceeds the regulatory requirements currently in place. While I would like to see a different set of requirements in place, it would be unfair to hold any single development to a higher standard.
As I indicated at the time, I would have supported an investigation into the decision-making process, but this has not come to a vote since I was elected. In any case, I have received significantly more information since being elected. It is my view that any inadequacy found retrospectively in the advice provided to councillors arose from the uncertainties surrounding the situation and therefore does not justify revisiting the original decision. Further, the key decision to make Shelly Bay an SHA was a joint decision between the landowner, WCC, and Cabinet and as such cannot be unilaterally undone.
The off ramps in this deal mitigate any risk related to the outcome of current court cases for all parties, including for Mau Whenua in their dispute regarding the original sale of the land. Council does not have a role to mediate between Iwi groups.
On reflection, perhaps it would have been more accurate and honest not to answer the yes/no questions, because I never had a straight yes/no position on Shelly Bay. My status at the time would have been more accurately described as “leaning no” or “it’s complicated.” However, I made the choice to answer at the time to try to be as transparent as possible.
I think it is interesting that very few of the sitting councillors answered the yes/no questions on Shelly Bay. They understood that the challenging and complex nature of the decision in front of us could not be reduced to a simple yes/no proposition.
Based on all of this, I think my answer to Benoit would be that voters should take the answers to these yes/no surveys with a grain of salt and candidates need to be more willing to answer "not sure, it's complicated." If you are a single issue voter, then it's worth taking the time to read the more detailed statements which candidates provide to see if their concerns align with yours. I also think it is important to read these yes/no policy statements in the context of the wider values which candidates campaign on.
In my case, my campaign signs had two slogans on them: “YIMBY” and “Futureproof Wellington.” YIMBY, short for “yes in my backyard,” is a pro-housing, pro-development global movement, intended to push back against the frequent opposition to new developments generally and new housing developments in particular.
The “Futureproof Wellington” slogan intended to capture the need we have for more housing and infrastructure to support the growth of our city, as well as a call to action on mitigate and adaptation for climate change. Again, Shelly Bay delivers significant new housing, as well as the upgraded infrastructure needed to support it. The development is planned as a Green Star Community. The developer is on record about providing car-free transport alternatives such as car share, shuttles, and an electric ferry. The ground floor of most of the development are 3 metres above sea level, significantly exceeding the current guidelines from the Ministry for the Environment on coastal hazards. I believe that supporting the sale and lease is consistent with my desire to futureproof Wellington.
My campaign also focused on making evidence based decisions and delivering cost effectiveness for ratepayers. One of my concerns around Shelly Bay was that councillors hadn’t received good advice, and therefore hadn’t made evidence based decisions. This is no longer a concern I hold. (I’m reluctant to go into this in more detail at this time, as it touches on the formal complaint I made against Mayor Foster.)
I am also convinced that the key commercial terms deliver excellent value for ratepayers. The cost of renewing our infrastructure around the city will run into the billions over the next two decades. Any deal that delivers a fixed amount of infrastructure at a fixed cost for ratepayers is worth pursuing given the wider context.
I acknowledge that some people feel hurt and disappointed by our decision this week. Nevertheless, I’m comfortable that my vote this week was consistent with the statement I made to Enterprise Miramar and the values I campaigned on, despite it going against my “no” answer to their survey.