The sale of the historic-listed Auckland Council ex-headquarters in Aotea Square is at the centre of a battle between the mayor and a group of opponents but secrecy shrouds discussions held yesterday over the building, empty since 2014.
The council's governing body yesterday ejected the public and shut off a live streaming camera so no one could see or hear them talk about the sale of the heritage-listed 18-level Civic Administration Building, evacuated in 2014.
Councillor Mike Lee, battling to reveal details of the sale of the building for an apartment conversion, failed 4-13 in his bid to get a motion passed which would show more information about the sale process, perhaps even its price.
Lee told the Herald after the meeting Panuku Development Auckland, the council's property arm, presented a confidential report to the councillors but he remains unhappy about secrecy of the discussion, which took more than three hours.
"Despite the mayor's promise to hear the notice of motion in public, he supported an amendment by Cr Penny Hulse to hear it with the public excluded," said Lee, who added that Aucklanders deserved to know what the council proposed to do with the building.
"Councillors were repeatedly warned they would be personally liable if the motion was carried," he said of his call for more information about the secret deal to sell the building to an entity connected to developer John Love of Love & Co.
"I suspect a major part of the sensitivity is really about just how bad the whole deal is for the people of Auckland," Lee said.
Chris Darby, the planning committee chairman, said after the meeting that Lee's motion was defeated 4-13.
"It was discussed in confidential then the decision transferred to open record," Darby said.
Darby does not support Lee's call and has himself sought more information on the wider civic precinct, rather than just the CAB and its surrounding land.
Darby vowed to raise maintenance issues, after hearing one window was boarded up and how the building had fallen into a grubby state.
Lee said where once the CAB was at the heart of civic life, it had now fallen into a melancholy state.
Christine Fletcher, another councillor, supports Lee and says the deal to sell the building was the factor which resulted in her supporting rival mayoral candidate John Tamihere.
Fletcher said last night: "There was much that should have been on the open agenda and I reject that we went into committee."
Discussions went from around midday until after 3.30pm, she said, and were extremely protracted, with a lawyer in the room giving advice directly to members of the governing body.
"The lawyer said we had to go into committee because he felt we would be breaching our contractual obligations if it was an open forum. Yet there was no independent lawyer there, only the in-house legal counsel," Fletcher complained.
"I'm appalled that none of this was discussed in public. I do recognise parts of this are commercially sensitive, but this building is an important public space for Auckland," Fletcher said.
Tamihere supports Lee's call to halt the sale until a complete commercial report is publicly tabled and discussed by elected council members.
Tamihere cited a $3m sale price figure and said the "cloak and dagger approach" by Panuku was a disgrace. If he becomes mayor, he says he will ensure council controlled organisations are more transparent.
Love has not responded to questions about the sale or returned calls this week.
Panuku has refused to supply any new information about the sale of the CAB and surrounding land or the price negotiated on the properties.
Allan Young, Panuku development director said this week: "The Civic Administration Building is owned by Auckland Council. On behalf of the council, Panuku is continuing to work through the details of a development agreement with Love & Co, which is confidential and cannot be discussed. This includes the price. We hope to conclude this process soon, at which point an announcement will be made."
The Herald has reported how council staff left the building in 2014 and it was empty, then in September 2016, a new deal was announced.
The CAB was to be sold, the council said.
Developer John Love has previously said changes would pave the way for a $200 million to $300m development in Auckland's cultural heart.
Tawera Group planned to remove asbestos and convert the office tower into apartments with bars, restaurants and cafes at ground level, Love said at the time.
The sale of the CAB also included 5000sq m of land, to be used for a boutique, 100-room hotel fronting Mayoral Dr and a retail/office/apartment tower on the Mayoral Dr/Greys Ave corner, Love said.
Yet no details of the price or terms of the contractual arrangements have been revealed. The Herald has applied for this information and been rebuffed.
Love said in 2016 that a building featuring a whare tapere performance space fronting Aotea Square would be built on land surrounding the Civic. A total of 120 homes are planned.
The Civic Quarter project would "blend an iconic Auckland landmark with cutting-edge design ensuring that the Aotea Quarter becomes a must-visit destination", Love said.
He was keen for the sale price to be kept confidential in final negotiations with the council's Panuku.
The mayor at the time, Len Brown, said he was also keen to maintain transparency around the sale for part of Aotea Square, which he called a "critical part of the heart of our city".
The $27.2m sale of another civic space - Queen Elizabeth Square to Precinct Properties for a commercial development - was made public but not the CAB and surrounding land sale price.