I got it in the neck from Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee on Friday for suggesting a Waterfront Development Authority couldn't do a worse job of redeveloping Auckland's downtown waterfront than our politicians had done up until now.
If I'd wanted to stir the pot further, I could have added that a similar, politician-free entity, the Auckland Regional Transport Authority, had, in its brief existence, done a pretty good job in kick-starting the public transport revival - despite political pressure from time to time to go against its better judgment. The ill-fated commuter rail link to Helensville, for example.
Against its own expert advice ARTA, in mid-2008, bowed to political pressure from the ARC, spent $1.25 million on new rail stations, and reopened the passenger link to the Kaipara Harbour. Last Christmas, this white elephant trial was quietly abandoned. At the end it carried just 18 city-bound fares a day, each propped up with a $45.72 a head subsidy.
This is the sort of ammunition used to support the argument for keeping politicians and their local wishlists at arms length from such decision-making.
But even if these council controlled organisations (CCOs) are better at, shall we say, making trains run on time, that's hardly justification for handing them control of most of the decision making within the new governance structure of Auckland. Yet this is what the Government seems set on doing. It has become so mesmerised by the concept of non-elected CCOs deciding everything down to the siting of pedestrian crossings and bus shelters in suburban streets that even its erstwhile fellow-travellers in the Chamber of Commerce and the Employers and Manufacturers Association are running scared.
In his drive to build a brave new world in Auckland, Local Government Minister Rodney Hide and his multitude of advisers seem to have forgotten he is supposed to be designing a new streamlined system of local democracy. If the new model also happens to provide some of the efficiencies of process that the Government's allies have long been clamouring for, that's the bonus. Now that even the business groups who commissioned this new vehicle are claiming the wheels are falling off, it seems inevitable a major redesign must be in the offing.
As critics argue, the big issue is lack of accountability.
The British colonists in America in the mid-18th century coined the catchcry "no taxation without representation" to protest at their lack of representation in the British Parliament that levied taxes over them, and this is one of the major objections to the new governance structure. As Mr Lee told the local government parliamentary select committee, "The transport agency will be spending over 50 per cent of the Auckland Council's rates revenue, $1.3 billion of Aucklanders' money, yet the arrangements proposed do not make it accountable to the public for the expenditure of that money, and nor do they make it accountable to the Auckland Council."
Another critic claims more than 75 per cent of council services will be in the hands of these arms-length entities. Which raises the question, what will be left for the mayor and councillors - and the 19 community boards and their members - to do.
There's no space here to go into the details of the bill's democratic shortcomings, which are well canvassed in the submissions from business groups, the ARC and many others from across the political spectrum. Even the more supportive, such as that from Peter McKinlay and David Wilson, directors of the Institute of Public Policy, AUT University, call for additional powers for the Auckland Council over the CCOs.
There seems to be general consensus that, at the very least, board directors of CCOs should be, from day one, like directors of state-owned enterprises, holding office at the pleasure of the minister - or in Auckland's case, at the pleasure of the Auckland Council. Another must is that board meetings be open to public scrutiny and participation.
Also sorely lacking are any details about the role and powers of local boards in relation to the central Auckland Council and to their links to the CCOs. At the moment the ministerial speeches are peppered with fine intentions and talk of consultation and co-operation between the three, but the legislation leaves any power the local boards may end up with to the grace and favour of the other two. Which means bugger all. It's a recipe for tears before bedtime.By Brian Rudman Email Brian