Alex Swney: One simple step to avoid spectacular failure

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The appointed boards add a contradictory third tier to the two-tier (council and local boards) system Auckland has chosen. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The appointed boards add a contradictory third tier to the two-tier (council and local boards) system Auckland has chosen. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The message came from Apollo 13 40 years ago: "Houston, we have a problem." A similar message sounds over Auckland today.

Proposals for Auckland to be run by seven large council-controlled organisations with appointed boards have quite rightly drawn a lot of flak. The current proposals render Auckland's elected representatives - our mayor, councillors and local board members - relatively impotent.

We need to modify the proposals to restore elected representative authority and power, giving our mayor and councillors more direct and fast control over all of the operations of the city council and its implementation agencies.

If you want Aucklanders to engage with local government, you don't go hiding decisions in the board rooms of appointed directors.

Luckily for the Government, the change required is straightforward and feasible.

Keep the controlled organisations but drop the appointed boards. They would essentially add a contradictory third tier to the two-tier (one council, 20 local boards) system we have finally decided on.

Surely the Minister of "getting back to basics", Rodney Hide, isn't supporting what is, in effect, an extra tier of government?

There has been plenty of opposition raised about the unelected council-controlled organisations. The recent Herald headline "Who'd be mayor if you can head a CCO" successfully summarised much of it.

The suggestion past politicians have failed Auckland so now we must replace them is off beam and provides no justification for having unelected appointed directors running the show.

What happened in the past is we've had eight councils and eight bureaucracies - that has been the problem.

Appointed directors will have too much power with no requirement to listen to the public. These organisations are going to make decisions which shape our communities, and we and our elected representatives should have greater control over them than that offered by Statements of Intent and the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

For example, a deal was struck between the Ports of Auckland, Sea+City and Golden Bay Cement for the latter to build a cement distribution centre on the waterfront, underpinned by a 35-year lease. Yes, we need to look at supporting commerce, but the point here is the ink was dry on the contracts before elected representatives such as the mayor and the chairman of the Finance Committee even knew about it.

We've finally got rid of seven councils, but under this proposal all we are doing is replacing seven cities with seven council-controlled organisations, which will have their own boards, chief executives, senior management teams, communications and media teams, legal advisers, planners, consultants and more. That spells more fragmentation, more duplication, more cost and less cohesion.

We now have the Auckland Regional Council, Auckland City, Auckland Regional Holdings, Sea+City, Ports of Auckland and Auckland Regional Transport Authority all having some say about our waterfront today. Under the new proposals, we'll have the Auckland Council, Council Investments, the Waterfront Development Agency, Ports of Auckland and the Transport Authority all having a say tomorrow. What has really changed?

Policies, priorities, plans and even large projects should be determined by the mayor, council and local boards and the work of the controlled organisations, where they are needed, limited primarily to implementation.

All of the issues above can be solved in one simple step: replace the proposed appointed directors with elected representatives. Use the functional committees of council as boards, and have the controlled organisations and chief executive reporting to them.

We should redefine the role of the council-controlled organisations more clearly as organisations that carry out the work agreed on by our elected politicians. After all, it's how they do it at central Government.

Quote from the Ministry of Education's website: "The Ministry of Education works directly for the Minister of Education and Minister for Tertiary Education, and the Associate Ministers of Education." There is no intervening board of directors.

Similarly, the chief executive of Auckland Transport should work directly with the chair of the Land Use and Transport Committee. So would the chief planning officer of council, to get better integration at all levels of council's work.

There is also an opportunity to consider the role of an ombudsman office to provide an impartial source of assistance in the resolution of disputes between council organisations, or the council and the Auckland public.

At present, public issues and concerns are often muffled by the bureaucracy. The independence of an ombudsman would go a long way to correct that.

Retaining the council-controlled organisations but dropping the appointed directors in favour of councillors fixes myriad problems, and the third bill provides the opportunity to make any changes to previous acts to effect this.

If Government ministers do not make this sort of change to their plans, then they run the risk of the Auckland governance changes they are responsible for being remembered in the same vein as Apollo 13 - a "successful failure".

* Alex Swney is chief executive officer of Auckland's Heart of the City business organisation.

- NZ Herald

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