Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Len's path to redemption in council hands

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Mayor's legacy relies on him breaking down his castle walls and working with councillors.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Greg Bowker
Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Greg Bowker

At last, after three years of being in thrall to the mayor, the politicians on Auckland Council are preparing to exercise their power. At Thursday's meeting of the full council, it looks as though the two most senior councillors, former Auckland City mayor Chris Fletcher, and former regional council chairman Mike Lee will not just move a "cross-party" motion of censure against the mayor, but propose a monitoring committee to oversee the mayor and his office.

This would be similar to the monitoring committees already in place to keep track of council-controlled organisations and the chief executive officer.

Mr Brown has apologised to his wife, his family and, on Friday after the release of the EY report, to the citizens of Auckland for his errors. But councillors say they've been humiliated as well, and want an apology of their own.

To me, it's the monitoring committee that's important. A powerful body to provide checks and balances over the mayoral silo. Exactly how this attempt to clip the wings of the "executive" mayor will be achieved is one for the lawyers, and ultimately the law-makers to work out. But if the end result is the walls of King Len's castle are knocked down and he and his officials become members of the greater Auckland Council team, then the whole Bevan Chuang kerfuffle was almost worth it.

Of course there will be opposition from the business community and those who fought hard for a strong, executive mayor, who could cut through the red tape and get things done. But if part of the mayoral job description is "one-man band" and "willing to take short cuts" then it's hardly surprising if you get applicants to fit the bill. The end result is our first Super City mayor both humiliated and compromised and his first-time rival, John Banks, to stand trial for electoral fraud.

That said, there was nothing in the independent EY report, commissioned by chief executive Doug McKay, to suggest Mr Brown need stand down, or his council colleagues hound him out of office.

As Mr McKay summarised, "the mayor did not inappropriately use council resources to support the relationship with Ms Chuang".

The report did unearth nine complimentary room nights the mayor had been gifted by local hotels in 2011-2012, including three nights at SkyCity. The mayor says the SkyCity gift was all one night in February 2011, when his family booked in to celebrate his wife's 50th birthday. Given the on-going controversy between the Government and SkyCity over the more pokies for a convention centre deal, the mayor was stupid to accept these and the other freebies, and not to declare them on the council gift register.

After all, in the midst of the first Super City mayoral race in June 2010, when the Auditor-General criticised him for personal spending on the Manukau City credit card, the tearful candidate and former Manukau mayor said "I'm under extraordinary scrutiny and maybe Jesus Christ was the only one to withstand that and come out completely pure".

As for the $32,888 the EY report claims was the value for 64 undeclared room upgrades, this is surely unfair. The mayor and his family stayed in central city hotels, particularly in the first two years, when he had late night or early morning meetings. His wife did the booking and paid the bills. Of the upgrades, 57 were at the Stamford Plaza, five at SkyCity and one each at the Langham and the Heritage.

As his office argues, it is standard commercial practice to upgrade regular customers. If he'd booked them through the council bureaucracy, there's little doubt they would have argued for a discount, as Parliamentary Service does for travelling MPs.

Like airline seats, hotel rooms have a use-by date, and a very flexible value. The last time I booked a hotel room, I got a huge discount simply by booking online. It seems unjust that Mr Brown should be expected to have to declare the "rugby world cup, every room in the city booked out" top tariff.

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the upgrades arithmetic, the mayor's reputation is in tatters. His redemption, and his legacy, now relies on him delivering the goods. And the best way to do that is to break down the castle walls and work with his councillors.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

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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