A three-year saga to get approval for a national Erebus memorial in an Auckland park will next week rest in the hands of seven local board members under huge pressure from residents and a government ministry fighting for their vote.
The Waitematā Local Board will on Tuesday vote on land owner approval for the $3.5 million memorial, Sky Song, to be built in Dove Myer Robinson Park in the suburb of Parnell.
The Ministry of Culture and Heritage (MCH) has already spent more than $1m of the budget for the memorial, and has been strongly pushing for the Parnell location against fierce opposition from local residents groups.
Efforts to influence the local board members will continue right up to the final minute. Yesterday, official invitations from an Auckland Council local government staffer were sent to board members asking them to meet with Erebus families in private before the public board meeting.
This final push has been described as "underhand" by local board member Sarah Trotman, who said any meeting with the whole local board should be done in a public forum.
"I'm really opposed to it, I think it's really unfair. What I've found is the Waitematā Local Board runs out the red carpet to some constituents and makes it very difficult for others," Trotman said.
"It's not equitable. Has the same opportunity been offered to the Waitematā community? No. I really object to this 'meeting behind closed doors' business."
Waitematā Local Board chair Richard Northey said he had agreed to the meeting requested by some Erebus families, but he and other local board members had similarly agreed to meet opponents of the memorial in private at Sunday's Parnell Festival of Roses.
"The meeting was arranged by Auckland Council at my request in response to a request from Rev Waugh on behalf of some Erebus relatives who stated that they felt intimidated by the offer of speaking in public forum with the intense emotions being felt by some opponents and some supporters of the Erebus Memorial Proposal," Northey said.
"I had some time ago communicated to representatives of both the relatives who supported the proposal and also Parnell residents who opposed it to have the opportunity if they chose to speak directly to the board were they to be intimidated by the public forum situation."
Local board member Julie Sandilands conceded that the private meeting with the Erebus families would likely be an effort to convince them to approve the Dove Myer Robinson site.
"I imagine that is what they are going to be trying to do, but I don't imagine that will be any different from the public meeting at 2pm where people will publicly try to convince us," Sandilands said.
"I guess part of the reason for that is some of the families don't feel comfortable meeting in public. I think it was a request on behalf of the families to meet with us.
"But I'm keeping an open mind right up to the meeting."
The local resident group Friends of Erebus Memorial Park [formerly Save Robbies Park] has been one of the most vehement objectors to the Parnell location.
This week, they presented a 30-page report citing dozens of official information documents outlining their objections to the Waitematā Local Board.
The group accused the MCH of attempting to "discredit and undermine" the local board's consultation with their own residents - 77 per cent of whom opposed the memorial's location.
The group has also sent the report to the Ombudsman requesting a full independent inquiry into the handling of the memorial by both MCH and Auckland Council staff.
Last month, the group also presented two alternative locations for the memorial, along with architectural designs, to the Waitematā Local Board.
One new location was at the Museum of Transport and Technology Western Springs and another in Hillsborough.
However, the Weekend Herald has also been contacted by several Erebus families who are strongly in favour of the location at Dover Myer Robinson Park.
Northland resident David Ling was one of them. His mother, Alison, died in the 1979 Erebus disaster.
"It is distressing to see a small, self-appointed group of Parnell residents yet again selfishly and vociferously objecting to an Erebus memorial in their neighbourhood," Ling told the Weekend Herald.
"This group should be honest and admit that their objections are based purely on self-interest, false fears and not wanting any changes to what they see as their private park. Forty years is too long already.
"I was 30 when my mother died and my mother never met my children and hence our grandchildren. Now in my early 70s, I think we've all waited long enough. And the site in Parnell is after all only 179sq m out of 55,000sq m."
The MCH continues to cite that in November 2018, the Waitematā Local Board granted land owner approval in principle, but much discussion has occurred since then.
In May, one local board member told the Herald the local board was six to one against the Parnell location, and local board chair Northey said it was "disappointing" the resource consent for the memorial wasn't publicly notified.
But this week, board members maintained they were still keeping an open mind.
"With more and more people contacting for both sides, I'm not comfortable commenting which way I'm feeling," Waitematā local board member Graeme Gunthorp said.
"I'm still open to all views and I won't be making my decision until I've heard all parties. The public consultation, we've all seen what those figures are, and I'm sure they will be at the top of people's mind when it comes to voting."
Ministry for Culture and Heritage deputy chief executive delivery Tamsin Evans said they respect "the views of all people who have a connection to Dove-Myer Robinson Park" but there were other considerations beyond locals' disapproval.
"We were fully supportive of the public consultation process carried out last year by Auckland Council, which was conducted so Waitematā Local Board members could consider it in their decision-making," Evans said.
"Because the proposal relates to a national memorial to appropriately acknowledge the Erebus accident, the views of local residents do need to be considered alongside those of a range of other stakeholders.
"The Ministry is confident in the merits of the proposal. We believe it will be an asset for all of Auckland and New Zealand."
In December 2019, the ministry's Erebus Memorial project leader Brodie Stubbs confirmed the 95sq m structure, entitled Te Paerangi Ataata - Sky Song, was specifically designed for Dove-Myer Robinson park.
The memorial incorporates a stainless steel walkway projecting out to the horizon on a lawn overlooking Judges Bay. The memorial acknowledges the loss to the families and the nation arising from the Erebus disaster.
On November 28, 1979, Air New Zealand flight TE901 crashed into Mt Erebus in Antarctica, killing all 257 passengers and crew. It remains the worst civil accident in New Zealand's history.