The lunacy over the V8 Supercars coming to Pukekohe called to mind the best local government meeting I ever attended.
An area health board in the UK liked to show its affinity with those under its care by holding some of its meetings at the low-security mental facility where the patients had a great deal of liberty. To demonstrate that mental illness should not carry unhealthy stigma, the board affected a complete lack of concern if the meetings were interrupted, from time to time, by patients taking advantage of the institution's policy that they be allowed to roam the grounds and the hospital itself.
This all went very well until this particular meeting - when the board's considerations were disturbed by a patient who popped his head inside the door and entered. He was about 40, and had a transistor radio clamped to one ear, turned up so loud that it was possible to determine from some distance that he was listening to the latest misfortunes of the England cricket team.
He never lost his inane grin and wandered the room, radio still pressed to ear, nodding knowingly at health board people he didn't know at all.
The board took this in their stride. They soldiered on while the patient began wandering round the room, transistor still applied, until he found himself at the top table, populated by the weightiest health board types - all pretending to be liberals. The patient moved behind them, walking slowly along the top table until he spied a large water jug.
Pushing between two of the bureaucrats, he bent over the table and (transistor still blaring into his ear), buried his face in the water jug - making loud motor boat noises. To their credit, the board maintained their dignity, at least until the patient emerged from the jug, face dripping, and then pushed his face back in for another go.
This time he made more motor boat noises but built to a shrill crescendo with his face still in the water, the bubbles and some ice slopping over the side of the jug. This proved too much for the assembled press contingent (we burst out laughing, earning a filthy look from the board CEO) and a board member finally, gently, led the patient to the door.
He took fright at this a bit and, once the gentle hold on his elbow was released, he bolted for a side door leading outside where we could see him through the window - hiding behind a shrub, poking his head out (transistor still at ear), gazing in the window at the strange creatures within.
It was the closest I had ever got to believing the lunatics had taken over the asylum - until the Auckland Council and its rogue subsidiary, ATEED (Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development) voted to spend $10.6 million of ratepayers' money (plus $2.2m of taxpayers' money from the Government) to bring the V8s to Pukekohe.
ATEED withheld key documents detailing the risks of such backing and nine sheep (sorry, councillors) voted to host the V8s and spend the money in spite of being denied information that could have swayed their opinion.
I mean ... what world do these people live in? New Zealand is suffering through the recession and most of us are tightening our belts. There is an existing, highly-praised race track at Hampton Downs, not far from Pukekohe. It doesn't need $10.6m plus $2.2m to host the V8s - it could be brought up to speed for about $2m. But by an accident of bureaucratic geography, Hampton Downs isn't in Auckland.
That's the nub of it. This is all about political grandstanding and the "legacy virus" that seems to infect so many politicians, national and local.
Someone called Jennah Wootten from ATEED said when the deal was announced that Hampton Downs had been considered but decided Pukekohe best met the criteria for a major event for Auckland and provided the best economic benefit.
Bunkum. All of the usual minor points trotted out routinely to explain why Hampton Downs won't do could be sorted out quickly by local and/or national government committed to the best result for motor racing, fans and economic benefits.
While we are talking about the latter - don't believe the ATEED-supplied figures that suggest the racing will bring an annual return of $7m a year or $35m over the five years of the deal. In a previous life, in public relations, I can remember at least two "econometric" studies which suggested great economic benefits accruing from clients' actions. At best these things are guesses, at worst a fantasy - unable to be proven or disproven.
When the V8s last came to town, in 2004, the estimated benefit to the region was $45m or a total of $315m over seven years, according to the snake oil salesmen then. That shows the level of guesswork inherent in these things and, anyway, ATEED shoots its own proposal down by refusing to release the risk review - automatically plunging into doubt its own estimates.
Finally, the V8 Supercars don't help themselves by appearing to be a sport that can operate only with snout firmly in the public trough; the cost to the public at former venues like Hamilton, Canberra and Sydney tell their own story.
There is nothing wrong with being a sport and a business but why the persistent reliance on the public purse?
For the ratepayers, the answer appears to be to dig further into pockets. The Auckland Council has a long term plan which sees rates rise by 4.9 per cent a year. That compounds to a 70 per cent increase over the years of the plan. Incomes seem unlikely to rise by the same amount. There is the scandal of the Kaipara District Council where council spending has so run away that Mangawhai residents - some faced with 100 per cent rates increases which mean they cannot afford to live there - have gone on strike, refusing to pay their rates.
On a smaller scale - but still an illustration of the misguided spend, spend, spend and "legacy" disease which seems to drive so many of our local governors - they have voted $80,000 to spend on installing fitness equipment at Northcote's Little Shoal Bay. Heard of walking, running, swimming? All free ...
That $80,000 is small beer in the greater scheme of things but it shows the same viral infection that has assailed Mayor Len Brown and his councillors at a time when fiscal prudence is more desirable.
It also demonstrates that the whole show could be run better by the bloke with his lips in the water jug, making motor boat noises.