Leaders take their people with them

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    It’s hard not to feel, as Waiheke comes to seething point with overweening city ambitions to rewrite everything from our city doorstep and bus timetables to our planning rules – preferably behind closed doors – that the city hegemony is astonishingly uncaring of its actual citizens.

    We’re obviously not alone here, though the process of ratepayers as the cash cow for big city ambitions is pretty clear in a small, knit community under the pump for development bonanzas. 

    However, the tide may be turning, with chief ombudsman Peter Boshier last month telling MPs that changes are necessary to police dysfunctional and secretive
    relationships between council staff, councillors and mayors.

    He was briefing members of a government select committee on the results of investigations into Local Government Information and Meetings Act compliance and practices which raised systemic questions about existing structure for oversight and transparency in local government.

    The most high-profile of his reports, on Christchurch City Council, found that top staff manipulated reports and kept negative information secret from councillors and the public. There’s a gap in the legal framework, he said. 

    “Let’s say there’s a council with a dysfunction [between elected officials and the council]. I can’t see any easy mechanism for there to be a way in which that dysfunction is therapeutically addressed. It just festers at times and gets worse,” he said.

    The Solicitor General’s 28-page “prosecution guidelines” have sat on my desk for a year now, informing several requests under the act to Auckland Council chief executive Stephen Town questioning council’s protocols and safeguards when launching a criminal prosecution against a ratepayer.

    I made the first request to Mr Town before we even wrote the initial story last year about his council’s prosecution of former board chairman Paul Walden. The latest followed an Environment Court pre-trial ruling which made national headlines and said the warrant for the search of the Walden property had been in breach of the Building Act.

    In between, I have sat through almost a dozen monthly Environment Court appearances by Mr Walden that stretched from September 2018 until after this year’s local government election. 

    Through it all, Auckland Council moved with glacial opacity to provide required evidence, and at several points the judge instructed the council’s barrister – a leader the field of Resource Management law – on the rules of evidence in his court. The actual trial is scheduled for next year. 

    I’ve reported a lot of court in my time but the courtroom appearances have been excruciatingly disturbing.  

    At last week’s board monthly business meeting, Mr Walden faced a drubbing from fellow board members over his non-appearance at board workshops this last year but I too had arrived back on the island from his court appearances with no appetite for sitting through the evening’s board meeting.

    The most recent answers from the chief executive’s office – obtained via the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act – were pretty disturbing too. The answers to my most recent information request came back in blistering indifference to any of the human actualities of the situation. 

    Since some of them are also pretty shaky in law, they will go forward to the Ombudsman.

    Mr Walden’s notice of motion to the first business board meeting last Wednesday asked the new board to hold its almost-weekly workshops under local government rules, refusing council officer recommendations to hold them behind closed doors (see story page 6). 

    It was not passed, and the evening included some interesting vignettes.

    Public forum had drawn one fiery and one well-researched presentation on the issue of Auckland Transport’s island bus timetable and the beady oversight of a long-time resident who audibly commented on the folly of throwing out 73 years of well-honed bus connection round the island and to and from its pivotal ferry services.

    The new timetable had moved 937 island residents to put pen to paper in a public consultation 18 months earlier in opposition to wholesale changes.

    The AT decision on a hotly disputed “loop” – actually an alternative route through Ostend’s waterfront which had been axed for no visible purpose – was later in the evening justified to the board as carrying an average of “half a person” per trip.

    There is no such thing, of course, and it still leaves a fair few people every day staggering home half a kilometre with shopping, push chairs, fractious children or the tiredness of long commutes to the city. 

    We seem a long way down the path of being made invisible. • Liz Waters

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