Editorial: Len Brown a civic figure who squandered his moral authority

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Promise shaded by scandal as mayor squandered his moral authority.
Auckland City Mayor Len Brown during the last sitting of the current Auckland Council. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Auckland City Mayor Len Brown during the last sitting of the current Auckland Council. Photo / Dean Purcell.

Len Brown has a week left at city hall. Six years as the first Super City mayor end next weekend when the keys to the 27th floor Albert St office change hands. He will not be remembered as an inspiring or great figure in Auckland civic life, and it is hard to dislodge the tawdry episode of his workplace affair from any assessment of his legacy.

The mayor holds just one vote round the council table, and the expanded city was constructed in a way which placed the council companies at arms' length to elected councillors. So the power of the mayor and his ability to steer the city's path is limited.

But the mayor holds an office which comes with public expectations and the end of his tenure is the time to grade his performance.

One test of a mayor's contribution to local government is to define it by a simple question: does Brown leave Auckland a better place? A fair answer would be a little.

Many policies which impinge on New Zealand's biggest city are outside the control or influence of the council and its mayor. Responsibility for soaring house prices, and overcrowding in poorer parts of the city, should not be laid at his door.

But Brown can claim to have pushed vigorously for public transport, especially rail. Work on the costly City Rail Loop finally has started, with a fair chunk of central government money ensuring that train services should eventually be more efficient and regular.

The deal which gave the green light to the CRL confirms that the mayor made a decent job of managing Auckland's relationship with Wellington, given that the cabinet came round to the view that the loop was a missing link in the city's transport network.

Brown has showed realism advocating that some form of user pays is required to pick up the tab for projects Auckland needs. Demands on ratepayers have to be tempered with fairness, and new forms of revenue will be needed. The way the city is growing north of the harbour bridge means more big transport decisions must be made sooner rather than later.

He sat at the head of a table which drew together politicians from eight councils which had not always worked cohesively. By and large the arrangement functioned. Under his watch, a unitary plan was assembled but it faces significant legal challenges. Finally though there is a blueprint which tries to address the city's acute housing shortage by building up and out.

When his affair became public, immediately after he won a second term, this newspaper called for Brown to quit. He clung on to the job. The shame of his behaviour faded from the headlines, but his credibility never recovered. He apologised to his wife and family, but he should have gone further and accepted there was a public price to pay.

His failure to do the right thing meant that the promise of his first term was shaded by the scandal when he was re-elected. His behaviour left him isolated at the council, and meant that as mayor, he could not always expect four-square support when it came to promoting what was best for the city.

The loss of moral authority came at a price. A more determined figure for example would have called the bluff of the port company when it wanted to expand into the harbour in the face of public opinion. He might demanded more transparency from the CCOs and channelled the dynamic power of Auckland to turn the 'world's most live able city' ambition into more than a slogan.

That task awaits the next mayor.

- NZ Herald

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