Two more chapters in the sometimes ridiculous but also important tale of discontent at Auckland Council were written this week. After receiving a complaining letter from nine of the 19 councillors, Mayor Phil Goff called them all together for an afternoon chat to clear the air, and everyone says it went well. Tea and scones were enjoyed by all, presumably.
Before they took a tea break, though, they held a meeting of the finance and performance committee, to which they all belong, and heard a submission from Bill Buckley and his colleagues from Speedway Promotions Ltd. Yep, the speedway issue is not over yet and – surprise, surprise – it's a contributing factor in the simmering displeasure of half the councillors.
Buckley made a rambling speech in which he assured the committee that moving his speedway from Western Springs to a new site at Colin Dale Park, near the airport, was A Good Thing. The Springs track was a bit small for the cars these days, he said, and they wanted more meets, and besides, Colin Dale would be easier for the fans to get to.
But Buckley has spent years fighting to keep the track where it is and was at it with another promotional campaign earlier this year. His heart is clearly still in Western Springs.
"Blokes can knock off work and have a few beers, and then they walk down to the track," he told the committee. "Afterwards they head back into Ponsonby and hit the booze." Right.
But, he said repeatedly, he really was keen on going to Colin Dale. Several councillors did not bother to hide their scepticism. They wanted to know: did the mayor make you do it?
Buckley denied it and so did the mayor.
Suddenly, speedway was a lightning rod. Was Buckley's change of heart evidence of the mayor's penchant for secret machinations, as he stands accused? Or was crowbarring Buckley out of Western Springs with a smile on his face a remarkable feat of negotiation that should have been applauded all round the table? Not so long ago, that probably would have happened.
It wasn't Goff who did the negotiating, by the way. That honour goes to deputy mayor Bill Cashmore, supported by committee chairman Ross Clow.
But it doesn't suit the narrative of the mayor's critics to praise Cashmore. He's National and Goff's Labour. To acknowledge they work well together would make a mockery of the central complaint about Goff: that he's an antagonistic loner who can't work with people of different persuasions.
Late in the meeting, Cashmore made a speech congratulating Buckley for having the maturity to accept speedway had to move, and Buckley made a speech congratulating Cashmore on his constructive leadership. That was odd.
The Goff-Cashmore alliance still defines the political reality of Auckland Council. The prevailing group, which generally supports the mayor, occupies the broad centre and the political parties are split. Three of the councillors who signed the letter of complaint are National Party members but three more in the party did not sign. There are Labour members on both sides too.
The critics say Goff operates an A team and a B team. That's a crude misrepresentation. Goff has a kitchen cabinet, comprising the chairs and deputy chairs of the big committees. That's his "A team". They meet regularly and they help Goff lead the general programme of council: the budget, the big policy issues, the whole vision thing.
It's not wrong for the mayor to work with and rely on a group of senior councillors. It's sensible.
What gets a councillor into the A team? Loyalty, obviously, although it's not blind: there's no one on council who votes with the mayor on all occasions.
Also, competence and experience. Goff's A team are able to develop policy coherently, run meetings and promote the work of the council in the community. Some of the "B team" have those skills too. But those who do are either new or they consistently oppose the council programme. Several of them, when they're out in the community, actively run the council down.
It's not wrong of the mayor to block the ambitions of councillors who oppose him at every turn. As for the newbies, they'll get their turn, assuming they also don't want to fight the mayor whenever they can.
The thing about the B team is that it isn't a team at all. It's a lineup of political opponents on the right and the left, plus some randoms who just can't stand Goff, plus some councillors who are both: they oppose him politically and dislike him personally.
It shouldn't surprise the political opponents that they don't get promoted into the leadership group. They want to undo the policies.
As for the randoms, they say they feel excluded, but they shouldn't be surprised either. Who could blame Goff for staying clear of councillors who keep getting all super angry on him?
Ambition, loathing, envy and betrayal don't explain everything about the squabbling at council. There's also belligerence, pride and stupidity, and even they don't get us to the bottom of it, because there's politics.
Politics is actually the most important. Although Goff has earned cross-party support, the parties are flexing their muscles.
Labour upped the game after the general election: with Goff having been a Labour front-bencher in Parliament, there was an immediate alignment of city and national leaderships.
It's not that they both want exactly the same thing – Economic Development Minister David Parker overrode council to sort out the America's Cup bases, and the forthcoming Auckland Urban Development Authority will pose a significant challenge to council authority. But the alignment is generally strong and the channels of communication are open.
National has responded, led by the fast-rising Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross. Ross has been the most prominent of all Goff's opponents, whether in Parliament or council, and has rallied others to the cause. He got traction with his campaign against the regional fuel tax, and councillors came under enormous pressure to join National's opposition to it.
Labour put them under pressure on the other side, of course. The tax supporters prevailed in the vote, but not by much. And there's one more vote on it to come, next week.
That's the big picture: the party political opposition to Goff is stirring up all the councillors who have a grouch. Some of them are now actively promoting a pro-National, anti-Labour line.
There's nothing wrong with that: they are pursuing the political goals they believe in. But others, including some who would swear they are left-wing to the tips of their curling little toes, are being suckered into supporting them. That's a surprise.
I guess with a bit of luck none of them will forget why we have a council. My take on that? To provide services that bind us together as functional communities. The council could model that idea, just a bit.