Orwellian bureaucracy-speak disturbing

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    “I would like to assure you that Paul Walden has been treated no differently to any other property owner in similar circumstances nor has he been given any preferential treatment.” 

    This was Auckland Council chief executive Stephen Town’s response to a comprehensive formal complaint earlier this month when Waitemata and Gulf Ward councillor Mike Lee questioned why a warrant was obtained for a search by compliance officials of Waiheke Local Board deputy chair Paul Walden’s rural View Road property.

    “The information received by council staff was that there are activities occurring on Paul’s property which do not have the appropriate building and resource consents,” continued Mr Town, who said in such circumstances where there were “multiple allegations of offending”, a search warrant was routinely obtained (although it turns out that there have been only 12 such warrants sought by the council across all of Auckland in the 18 months since 2017’s devastating floods – see our stories pages six and seven).

    Cr Lee could be pardoned for having to read the words “no preferential treatment” several times to make sure that the council’s most senior official – and technically the only member of its bureaucracy that even elected councillors can question on matters involving staff – had just used the words in the context of a search involving a police warrant on the property of the former Waiheke Local Board chair that had been damaged by stormwater discharge from the road 16 months earlier.

    “This sort of Orwellian bureaucratic-speak from the council chief executive just confirms something is very dysfunctional with the culture of Auckland Council,” said Mr Lee, a regular advocate for horrified ratepayers facing contentious development in his inner city and gulf islands ward. He was told that “staff are still assessing the information gathered during their visit to Paul’s property and what further steps it is appropriate for them to take.”

    “At this stage, it is not appropriate for me to discuss the details of the investigation but I am more than happy to provide you with a review of the investigation when it is finished,” concluded Mr Town.

    In fact, most of us suspect that the council can and will – without thought – do such punitive things to its ratepayers in a muddle of ad hoc cost recovery amounting to social engineering. But only if you aren’t well resourced or have otherwise offended them.

    Many of the many, many stories over the years relate to the type of allegations for which Auckland Council is now suing Paul Walden.

    I have a friend, a very well-trained communicator, who watched in horror as a neighbour gradually extinguished a giant waterfront pohutukawa by successively piling spoil under its dripline and I’m certain she reiterated her ratepayer complaint many times during the process.

    Putiki Road’s recent hurry-hurry rebuild was undertaken by council’s own contractors without a resource consent at all. Or adequate plans. And there wasn’t a hint of dismay in official circles which blamed delays on winter weather.

    Double doors to our own offices in Oneroa were consented but when we came to make the change, the planning official of the day deemed the effects of an additional 600cm of glass required a notified consent.

    At the same time, whole hilltops have been shaved off (and trucked the length of the island for dumping) to make way for giant architectural vanities and retrospective consents shower down like leaves in autumn among the demographic that can afford lawyers and expensive professionals.

    Not for nothing is it a received truth in some circles that you are a mug to ask permission – go ahead anyway and ask forgiveness afterwards if necessary. 

    But that’s only for the ruthlessly well-resourced.

    For those of us who value the community we have here, the words “retrospective consent” (and even, recently, “honest mistake”) are now as odious in the community as council’s relentless application of “effects no more than minor” (or its opposite) to clinch rafts of unbundled decisions made by planning officials or “independent commissioners”.

    For a while in the 1990s a firm but fair administration of planning rules for the island stood us in good stead as we negotiated contending aspirations for development and people’s legitimate right to contribute and mitigate obvious breaches of soundly- agreed planning rules.

    However, in the past two decades, with the unlamented Auckland City’s planning processes folded even more thoroughly into its democracy-starved Auckland Council successor, what we’ve got has been far from either.

    And the question remains, how does a public body with an annual budget of $4.1 billion and the full might of its legal resources get to the point of suing ratepayers without any visible protocols or checks and balances? •  Liz Waters

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