Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Team talk good for ratepayers

Len Brown's directive to council-controlled organisations to play together nicely should reduce big legal bills

The Mayor welcomes 'robust debate' but expects 'a collaborative approach to resolving outstanding issues'. Photo / NZ Herald
The Mayor welcomes 'robust debate' but expects 'a collaborative approach to resolving outstanding issues'. Photo / NZ Herald

It promises to be a lean new year for those glass-tower lawyers who specialise in playing one branch of local government off against another. Mayor Len Brown, a one-time corporate lawyer himself, has written to the seven council-controlled organisations (CCOs) that together run the business side of the Super City, reminding them they are members of Team Auckland, not macho, self-governing, fiefdoms.

"I do not think it appropriate," he says, "for a CCO to make a formal submission" to the hearings panel considering the notified Unitary Plan, "independent of the council's submission". Differences within the "family" should be settled in-house.

"In bringing together the eight councils of the Auckland region," he said, "there was a clear public expectation that the days of councils using ratepayers' money to have lawyers and planners fight each other in court were over." He added, "We do not need to replace this (fighting) with the council and CCOs following a similar process."

It was a timely reminder to the bureaucrats about who is the ultimate boss in a democratic set-up. It was triggered, no doubt, by the try-on a month before by the 100 per cent council-owned subsidiary, Ports of Auckland. In September, port company chief executive Tony Gibson and his hired gun, top lawyer Mai Chen, fronted up to the mayor's office challenging the legality of a council resolution aimed at stopping further port company reclamation at the city's front door.

Unless the councillors reversed their decision to make further reclamation at the harbour's edge a "non-complying activity", the port company warned it would challenge the legality of the resolution before the Unitary Plan hearings panel.

It further raised the possibility of further action before the Environment Court. After last week's Herald story exposing this bullying, I'm told the ports company has backed off somewhat, although it still intends to make its submission.

The mayor's message to CCOs like Watercare Services, Auckland Transport and Regional Facilities Auckland is now crystal clear.

He welcomes "robust debate" but expects "a collaborative approach to resolving outstanding issues". Where agreement can't be reached at the officer level, it should be passed to the chief executives, and if necessary, to the chairwoman of the Auckland Development Committee, deputy mayor Penny Hulse.

So far the mayor is waving a velvet glove, but for any CCO that fails to get the message, he has the ultimate sanction up his sleeve. The boards of CCOs have to follow the wishes of the mayor and councillors as expressed in statements of intent. They are appointed, and can be dumped, by the council.

Forcing the various silos within the council structure to communicate with each other without teams of lawyers in tow is good in itself. It will also save much time and, for ratepayers, huge legal bills. The old councils were reluctant to reveal their legal bills for such internecine scrapping, but a regional council insider reckoned its annual legal bill for such warfare reached hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In September 2009, a year before the Super City was born, the eight chief executives of the legacy councils agreed it was time to "accelerate the resolution of appeals between councils". At the time there were 287 outstanding disputes.

By November, that number had risen to 355 - issues potentially destined for the Environment Court such as the argument between Auckland City Council and the regional council over wastewater discharge from the Rugby World Cup's Party Central on Queens Wharf.

Many of the disputes involved territorial councils battling the Auckland Regional Council (ARC), or vice versa. Among the outstanding cases was the ARC taking on Auckland City over the treatment of contaminated land at Wynyard Quarter, and one with Auckland City fighting ARC's tinkering with volcanic cone viewshafts.

In one of the cases, the ARC was ordered to pay $100,000 in costs by the Environment Court after losing an attempt to oppose Auckland City's green light to the expansion of a Waiheke Island airstrip.

Like now, there were those who argued that testing council decisions in open court led to better decision-making. That's impossible to prove. The only certainty is the old way was time-consuming, expensive, and it encouraged resolution by combat.

Now that we're all on one team, the mayor's wish for "an internal process for resolving issues of concern" is surely the way forward.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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