Council officers’ spin out of control

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    Guest editorial by Mike Lee, who was Auckland Regional Council chairman until the watchdog body was abolished in the new super city amalgamation in 2010. He went on to be Auckland Council’s elected representative for the Hauraki Gulf Islands and Auckland Central for nine years until local body elections 18 months ago.

    The Waiheke Local Board Governance Pilot evaluation programme – three years on – is judged to have been a success according to the officers’ technical report – and though goals remain unachieved, evidently more importantly “relationships have improved” – even with Auckland Transport. Hurrah!

    In explaining the background of the pilot programme, the technical report writers are careful to avoid any mention that the pilot programme was an outcome, essentially Auckland Council’s response to embarrassing criticism from the Local Government Commission after the determined and widely supported effort by Waiheke Island residents (Our Waiheke) to break away from the Super City from 2014  to 2018.

    This pilot programme to devolve a little power to the local board was always mainly window dressing with the usual lots of spin. In contrast to the success theme of the technical report, my own impression is nothing fundamentally has changed and, most importantly, the frustration many residents and ratepayers feel with the Super City, Auckland Transport (AT) and the local council office remains. No doubt the coming 5 percent council rates increase won’t help these concerns much either.

    Knowing well the culture of Auckland council and AT, I have to say I am not especially surprised at the general back-patting running through the report. This in itself is unremarkable. However what I do find surprising is how openly political the council officers have become. In crediting much of the claimed success of the pilot programme due to “a change in board composition and the local board chair aligned with a much more collegial way of working with council staff” is something bureaucrats in the past would normally only mutter among themselves behind closed doors. Not any more. Even more concerning for local democracy is the opinion of the report writers and their managers, who must have vetted the report, that “these changes in elected roles have likely impacted on the nature of support provided to local board members”. Does that mean what I think it means?

    Can one imagine central government officials, whatever their political beliefs, openly writing that sort of stuff in a report about a previous government. Resignations would be called for that sort of political bias and thinly veiled insubordination. However, in the Super City, such crossing the line by council officers into what is properly the field of politics has evidently become normalised.

    We on Waiheke should not be surprised at such attitudes; after all did not Auckland council officers organise a raid in 2018 supported by police officers, on the home of the former chair of the local board, whose replacement the report writers allude to with evident satisfaction? Didn’t the council’s case against the former chair, eventually and not surprisingly, fall apart in the courts?  (Although, of course not before council officers had subjected the elected member’s wife and children to this harrowing experience – followed by 18 months of dragging this person before the courts.)

    Could one really call that sort of misuse of official power a “collegial way of working”?  Setting to one side what the bureaucrats consider collegial behaviour, it is apparent the ethic of public service is in very poor shape in the Super City administration. It has been superseded not by empowered communities or local boards, but rather by an empowered council and CCO bureaucracies, evidently willing to grant a pat on the head only to the elected politicians they are willing to work with (note, “with” not “for”) and those who the council officers evidently judge to best suit their agenda. It seems to have become forgotten that councils are there to serve the public – not the other way round. • Mike Lee

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