There were a few elephants in the room when Waiheke’s new local board members were sworn in at a ceremony at the Ostend War Memorial Hall to open a term when Waiheke, even more than the rest of democracy-starved Auckland, will face hefty development pressure to deliver our City of Sails into the ‘world-class city’ and destination imagined by Rodney Hide.
One of the pachyderms was, of course, the national daily newspaper’s headline about the flawed Auckland Council warrant to “raid” the home of former board chair Paul Walden, who was re-elected for a third term despite still facing long-delayed and costly court procedures for infringements after stormwater ripped the driveway out of the family’s newly purchased rural block in View Road in 2017.
Another, to my mind, was the likelihood that the new board will continue its recent trend of “workshopping” issues behind-closed doors, giving officials even more of a whip hand with information and agendas. And citizens even more distance from intelligent solutions to their pressing and legitimate needs.
I’ve reported Auckland City and Waiheke local politics for half a century and one of the cherished tenets was that the decisions of the elected representatives had to be debated in public unless there was a compelling reason not to. How jealously we insisted on waiting for the decisions from in-committee deliberations.
Following an induction discussion late last month, the Waiheke board’s “relationship manager” has presented new members with a discussion paper on the pros and cons of admitting the public to its workshop model. He canvassed several other boards including the Devonport/Takapuna Ward in making a case for continued closed workshop format for the island.
“Perhaps the biggest issue with open workshops is that it creates an opportunity for elected members to politicise issues or projects at a very early stage,” he says. “Members who have strong views (usually against) an initiative or project will now have the opportunity to ‘sell’ the workshop content as a done and dusted approach, and they can also provide misinformation or be misleading about the impacts / direction / etc of a project at a very early stage in order to achieve political objective [sic].
“This ‘rarking up’ of community can manifest itself by large numbers of the public turning up to workshops based on the misinformation / half-truths fed to them by certain members, and those particular members will in turn play to the gallery,” the document says.
“With active social media it may also lead to statements by other, opposing board members being taken and reported out of context and they may become victims of bullying behaviour on social media.
“So, what should be an opportunity for the board to learn more about projects and provide initial direction, turns into a political ‘show’, with the impact being that the board essentially misses an opportunity to understand issues because they are more interested in creating drama and intrigue where there doesn’t need to be any.
“The result is that neither party (elected members or the staff presenting the item) actually get what they need out of the interaction,” it goes on, citing confusion for the public and media about the status of proposals and plans with “potential reputational damage for the council organisation and local board which can also impact on the timing of when information is communicated to the local board”. The document then goes on to say open meetings would also mean that the board might not get to hear proposals from the Transport and Panuku property CCOs that they would rather reveal in private.
The fact remains that “workshops” are not meetings under the Act, and there is no requirement for agendas and supporting materials in advance of it. Or for public attendance which, the discussion paper contends, lightens the burden for staff and officers who might otherwise worry about how far their supporting documentation would go (with more of that pesky confusion).
Of recent workshop agenda items on Waiheke, the most glaring was when versions of the reticulated sewerage agenda to enable intensified beachfront development were canvassed as part of a full workshop agenda. So, apparently, were the summer keyhole “trial” plans for Matiatia.
If such vital issues are pressure-cooked behind closed doors, callously shorn of history and packaged with all those re-written 10 and 30-year plans as various fait accompli, we don’t have a democracy and it certainly won’t be participatory.
The unanswerable question, amid all this jealous power-brokering, is who and where do any of us, including the elected board, get to make things better for each other and the planet? • Liz Waters