Editorial: Keep planning visible for city transport

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It is hard to think of a local Auckland issue that commands more public interest than transport. You only have to look at the final piece of legislation to set up the Super City to see just how significant it is.

This bill envisages seven council agencies - known officially as council controlled organisations - to carry out particular functions. By far the biggest of them will be Auckland Transport, which is expected to spend about $1.5 billion a year, more than half the Super City's budget.

Unlike the present agency, the Auckland Regional Transport Authority, the new body will not be responsible for public transport alone, it will also take charge of roading from local councils. Thus it will oversee everything from the big picture to the small details of where to put footpaths and bus stops.

On the face of it, the idea of having one body co-ordinating the approach to all forms of transport in the city looks like a good thing. Unfortunately, there is a significant downside. As a council controlled organisation, Auckland Transport will not be obliged to hold public meetings or issue agendas and minutes except when making bylaws.

Effectively, therefore, many of the decisions about things that directly affect ratepayers at a local level will be made in secrecy by remote officials.

It is true that Auckland Transport will be subject to the Official Information Act, meaning that people will be able to find out why and how decisions were made, but only after the event and therefore too late to influence the decision. It will be like opening the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Not surprisingly local body politicians have been sharply critical. "What are the issues councillors are most contacted about? It is roads, public transport, cycleways, speed limits," said Waitakere Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse

"It is possible that decisions on major projects, such as the Waterview tunnel or proposed motorways through Onehunga, will be made by shadowy Government lackeys without any consultation with local people."

Local Government Minister Rodney Hide defends the arrangement by pointing out that under the Local Government Act 2002, council controlled organisations - such as Auckland Transport's predecessor, ARTA - do not have to hold public meetings. And he argues that the provision for Auckland Transport to open its doors when making bylaws will give the public more access than they have now.

But this is only part of the story. Auckland Transport will also be taking over the roading functions of local councils. As roading matters are routinely placed on agendas for public information and discussion now, the bill as it stands will seriously erode the public's right to know.

It is equally difficult to reconcile statements by Transport Minister Steven Joyce with the contents of the bill. He says the approach was designed to ensure transparency, which has to be balanced against the administrative burden of publishing agendas and minutes.

On the contrary, it is clear the approach was to ensure obscurity rather than transparency. And the "administrative burden" of publishing agendas hardly seems a sufficient reason for keeping citizens in the dark about decisions being made that affect their lives and their neighbourhoods.

The best thing that can be said about the lack of transparency envisaged by the bill is that it is not yet set in stone. Mr Joyce acknowledged as much when he said the balance struck between administrative burden and transparency was a decision made by officials and further thought would be given to these aspects after submissions on the bill were heard.

This sounds very much like preparing the ground for some important changes. They will be most welcome if they favour more openness.

- NZ Herald

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