Bernard Orsman

Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

Unelected rulers keep doors shut

Mayor's efforts to increase public scrutiny of bodies that run three-quarters of Auckland only a partial success.

The proposed refurbishment of Shed 10 on Queen's Wharf for conversion into a Cruise Ship Terminal. Photo / Supplied
The proposed refurbishment of Shed 10 on Queen's Wharf for conversion into a Cruise Ship Terminal. Photo / Supplied

The V8 Supercars. A cruise ship terminal on Queens Wharf. Moving the Warriors to Eden Park. Central city parking charges.

Each of these high-profile projects and events has been discussed behind closed doors by the unelected stewards who run much of the Super City.

Despite the best efforts of Mayor Len Brown to open up the seven council-controlled organisations, few, if any, policy decisions are made under the gaze of public scrutiny.

After two years running 75 per cent of Super City services, the CCOs largely limit the public section of their monthly meetings to deputations, general reports and housekeeping matters before moving into the confidential section to discuss meaty matters.

By their nature, the CCOs are commercial organisations set up to work at arm's length from the council and will always have more reason than the council to operate under the cloak of secrecy.

Nevertheless, Mr Brown has promised a transparent and open administration and in July last year issued public meeting guidelines for CCO boards.

They included advertising meetings and listing confidential agenda items and the reasons for their confidentiality.

The guidelines were intended to enhance public confidence in the CCOs' participation in the democratic decision-making progress.

Most of the CCOs have sought to follow the guidelines, while finding reasons to conduct most of their business behind closed doors.

Some, like Waterfront Auckland - chaired by Bob Harvey - have flouted the guidelines and hide all details of confidential business from the public.

Instead of having the agendas and minutes of all its meetings up on its website, only the last five are available to the public.

Waterfront Auckland chief executive John Dalzell conceded listing the confidential agenda items needed to be addressed and promised to fix it.

The issue of open board meetings was placed on the confidential agenda by Auckland Council Investments in May last year. Chief executive Gary Swift said the board and management needed to go behind closed doors to discuss openness and transparency and how they would handle open board meetings.

After concerns before the Super City came into existence about the level of power being handed to the unelected directors of CCOs, the Government agreed that two councillors should sit on the board of Auckland Transport because of its size and importance. Councillors cannot be board members of the six other CCOs.

One of the two council board members, Mike Lee, said Auckland Transport had tried to hold as much business in public as possible, but he felt it could go further.

"Once something is discussed behind closed doors there seems to be no mechanism for that information be be released at any time," he said.

"An increasing amount of information is being stored away from public scrutiny."

The same went for the Auckland Council, Mr Lee said.

AA spokesman Simon Lambourne has been campaigning for greater openness and transparency by the board of Auckland Transport.

Mr Lambourne, who at the outset of the Super City criticised the board for working in complete secrecy, said it was still discussing too many items out of public view.

Last month, he said, the city centre parking proposal was discussed in secret, followed later in the day by a public announcement.

"There was no public scrutiny of the board discussion. It's outrageous behaviour when you put an item on the closed agenda to control the time of the public release."

Auckland Transport chief executive David Warburton said the proposal was discussed in confidence because of the commercial implications for parking operators in setting of rates and times and the decision was released immediately afterwards.

He said the board was conscious of the need for transparency, and discussed items in closed session only where there was commercial sensitivity, privacy issues or as a courtesy to inform the council.

"Of course we can do better, and we are working on that," Mr Warburton said.

Auckland councillors are locked out of the confidential business of the CCOs. They do not receive the confidential section of the CCO agendas and are not allowed to attend boardroom confidential discussions.

In a report to councillors in March this year, council officers said the unelected board members of the CCOs should be able to have free and frank discussions in private without political influence.

Said the council's chief executive, Doug McKay: "Attendance by council officers or elected members at confidential CCO board meetings is not appropriate unless by invitation.

"It has the potential to create role confusion.

"In the interests of transparency and good governance, the shareholder should not be seen to influence CCO boards outside of the established accountability framework."

Every three months, the CCOs report to the council's accountability and performance committee, are required to give effect to the Auckland Plan and are set performance measures.

Councillor Cathy Casey believes she has the right of access to all aspects of the council "family", including the confidential reports and discussions of the CCOs.

"I have several concerns about CCOs' use of confidentiality. I believe it is being used inappropriately to keep control of information," she said.

Mr Brown believed the situation with the CCOs on openness and transparency had improved since he issued the guidelines last year, but there was room for improvement.

"'However, we need to be a little patient with our expectations and remember that this is the largest merger in New Zealand history and it's going to take some fine tuning," Mr Brown said.

Auckland Transport gets tick in survey

After a patchy start with the 21 local boards, the council-controlled organisations have lifted their game.

A Herald survey of the local boards published last month found relations with the CCOs had improved from a survey in May last year.

Kaipataki chairwoman Lindsay Waugh expressed a widely held view that of the council-controlled organisations, Auckland Transport in particular was doing a better job than it had been last year.

"The willingness of Auckland Transport to respond to my advocacy for the reinstatement of the Beach Haven ferry terminal was dealt with swiftly and positively," she said.

Howick chairman Michael Williams said the relationship with Auckland Transport was very good and things were improving with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed), "although they have a lack of empathy for local aspirations".

Devonport-Takapuna chairman Chris Darby said having CCOs allowed significantly more pace in project delivery, Auckland Transport being a standout after a slow start.

Otara-Papatoetoe chairman John McCracken said: "We are working closely with Auckland Council Property and Auckland Transport in particular on a number of projects and the engagement with the board has been excellent."

Waitakere chairwoman Faye Storer said generally the CCOs were very efficient but there was a danger of them becoming too autonomous and forgetting they were an arm of council funded by ratepayers.

Tomorrow: Running the ruler over the seven CCOs

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 25 Nov 2014 03:11:57 Processing Time: 320ms