Auckland Transport is in big strife over a proposal for 12 new pedestrian crossings and loss of 40 carparks in St Heliers, raising wider issues over how it consults and claims of an arrogant culture.
Auckland Transport's handling of safety improvements in the seaside village of St Heliers is bringing calls for a change to the "arrogant" culture of the organisation.
Politicians, community leaders and locals are unified in the view that AT does a lot of positive things, but accuse it of being arrogant and not listening to communities and businesses.
AT board chairman Lester Levy rejects the claims of an arrogant culture and believes it is not warranted, but admits he hears people using the tag often because they disagree on an issue.
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff says he gets feedback that AT and other council-controlled organisations(CCOs) are arrogant because they are not elected.
He has told AT they are not a dictatorship, but accountable to the people. His main rival at October's local body elections, John Tamihere, says there is a clear lack of confidence across the city with Auckland Transport.
"You have turned a quiet suburban village into a seething mass of anger," one St Heliers resident, George Richardson, said in an email to AT chief executive Shane Ellison.
"AT's new traffic management and road safety plans is over the top and its refusal to listen to community concerns is arrogant. Aucklanders have had enough," said Wanda Mountfort.
They are referring to a public meeting in St Heliers last month where Ellison turned down an invitation to explain a proposal for 12 new raised pedestrian crossings and the loss of 40 carparks to improve safety.
More than 600 locals, many of them elderly, booed when they heard Ellison's no-show was partly out of fear for the safety of staff and talk of the crowd being "hostile". Ellison stands by the decision not to attend, saying he has had a lot of support from staff and the PSA. He added AT had organised drop-in sessions to hear public feedback.
Since the meeting, politicians have entered the fray with stern words from Goff and others directed at Ellison, Levy and the seven other non-elected directors, Sir Michael Cullen, Dame Paula Rebstock, Wayne Donnelly, Kylie Clegg, Mary-Jane Daly, Mark Gilbert and Dr Jim Mather.
Mike Walsh, the acting chairman of the St Heliers Residents Association, and Peter Jones, chairman of the St Heliers Village Business Association, said things would have been different if AT bothered to talk with the community prior to consultation, which they believe is cover for getting cars off the road.
Walsh strongly refutes AT's "evidence-based" proposals for the extra pedestrian crossings and loss of carparks, saying NZ Transport data shows there have been no fatal accidents in St Heliers between 2013 and 2017 - the period used by AT in the proposal.
Of the three serious accidents, he said, one was a pedestrian hit by a cyclist, one was a cyclist running into an opening car door and one was due to two vehicles manoeuvring in a short no-exit street off Tamaki Drive. None of these would have been avoided by 12 new pedestrian crossings, he said.
Jones said the community wants to work with AT to create a better environment for St Heliers with safer roads for pedestrians and cyclists - a joint working group has been set up - but three serious injuries and seven minor injuries in St Heliers and adjacent Tamaki Drive in five years is statistically at the lower end.
Walsh said the community mood towards AT is very negative and an accumulation of years of frustration and lack of trust.
"Nobody admires them for what they do. Nobody likes them. It's a failure of management and governance especially. It's a very bad culture. Most organisations attempt to deliver what their customers want. I don't think Auckland Transport believes it has a customer and certainly doesn't behave like it does," said Walsh, a former bank executive.
Ellison and Levy are hearing the feedback from locals and pre-election noises coming from City Hall, and defending their corner.
Ellison said last year AT consulted on 362 proposals, received 4848 submissions and made significant changes in 25 per cent of cases. Other current road safety proposals in Te Atatu South, Papakura and Dairy Flat were being received positively, he said.
Another factor, Ellison said, was AT has been asked by the mayor and councillors to accelerate the roll out of lower speed limits.
"We can always improve, but I think to suggest there is a systemic problem doesn't reflect the reality of the numbers. We do consultation for a reason. The locals have knowledge and insights we don't have and places like St Heliers have told us they don't like it. In other cases they want more," Ellison said.
Levy said AT was getting hammered and going through a difficult process, but the organisation is in the process of trying to improve and change the culture of the organisation.
He said there are things that could be done differently, like consulting with a range of options and an independent benchmark of AT's communication and engagement.
He has also called for an independent review of the crash risk in St Heliers, saying if St Heliers and Mission Bay - where similar safety measures are proposed - are not in the top 10 most dangerous centres in Auckland, then resources will go elsewhere.
"St Heliers residents and businesses should have no concerns that their voice will not be heard," Levy said.
Orakei councillor Desley Simpson, who has led moves for AT to lift its game on consultation and engagement in council's latest State of Intent for the CCO, said AT has a systemic problem.
"I do think poor communication and engagement is at the heart of why so few people have a good word to say for AT. There is a lot of positive stuff that AT do, but they are overshadowed by the bad stuff," she said.
Councillor Mike Lee, who sat on the AT board for six years, said mounting public anger is the consequence of a culture which is massively funded by the public but increasingly out of control.
"Even within the organisation, important information is rationed, sanctioned and spun. Reports are rigged to achieve the desired outcome," he said.
Town Hall, a monthly news sheet about the goings-on at Auckland Council, said the St Heliers issue showed a flawed approach to town centre planning being applied to a village known for its capacity to organise and fight its corner.
"With backs immediately put up, AT doubled down, arrogantly and high-handedly trying to white knuckle its case. The escalation of hostilities became self-fulfilling."