The time spent by Auckland Council-controlled organisations debating items of public interest in private has been criticised and labelled "unacceptable".

Last week, Mayor Len Brown, who promised a transparent administration, opposed a move by nine councillors for an open debate on a funding package for the Maori Statutory Board.

This followed an attack by the Automobile Association on the mega-transport council-controlled organisation (CCO) for acting in secrecy and the Waitemata Local Board being stopped from talking about a secret deal condemning heritage buildings in the Wynyard Quarter.

In all these cases, Mr Brown, the Auckland Council and Auckland Transport have been criticised for keeping the public in the dark about important issues.

Citizens & Ratepayers leader and former Auckland City Mayor Christine Fletcher says had the council publicly debated the latest funding package for the Maori Statutory Board there would have been greater public buy-in.

Instead, she says, the council added to the controversy and further polarised the community.

Mrs Fletcher, who sits on the Auckland Transport board, is more circumspect about the AA's charge that Auckland Transport - which controls public assets worth $11.6 billion - issued a brief agenda one day before last month's public meeting and did not disclose its confidential business.

She says the CCO process is evolving, board members need to come up to speed on projects, but when it comes to critical decisions on important issues "my hope is as many of those are taken in the open agenda as possible".

AA spokesman Simon Lambourne said: "Most of Auckland's transport governance is being undertaken in complete secrecy and this is unacceptable".

Auckland deputy mayor Penny Hulse is another critic of Auckland Transport, whose board is chaired by Mark Ford, former chairman of the Auckland Transition Agency.

Ms Hulse says Auckland Transport is setting transport priorities behind closed doors. When transport was controlled by the seven former territorial councils and regional councils, "we never went into confidence to decide whether we were going to do road A or road B".

"I cannot understand why most CCO agenda items, particularly Auckland Transport, are not in public. I can't understand why most are in confidence," she said.

Mr Ford, who is also chief executive of Watercare Services, is surprised by the criticism.

He says Auckland Transport does its best to hold public meetings and be as transparent as possible, as requested by Mr Brown.

"We go into confidential only on commercial items that would embarrass other parties in the process and that is no different to councils."

Responding to AA claims that Auckland Transport does not release agenda reports or list its confidential items before meetings, Mr Ford said it was appropriate that the non-executive board members received and read the papers first.

The board has decided to make a list of confidential items available from next month.

Watercare chairman Ross Keenan said the CCO was committed to as much open business as possible but had inherited hundreds of contracts and legal agreements requiring early and careful consideration.

Mr Ford says CCOs are still feeling their way with the new system of open government but, as the commercial arms of the Auckland Council, a lot of their business is of a confidential nature.

One example is Auckland Property Investments, which holds and manages a commercial portfolio of 908 non-core properties worth about $700 million. A Herald survey of the amount of time spent in open and closed session by the council's seven CCOs found the Auckland Property board has spent 18 hours behind closed doors and 42 minutes in public.

The survey produced mixed results for CCOs but a positive report card for the Auckland Council. The full council has spent just 56 minutes behind closed doors at six meetings since November, compared with 27 hours in public.

Some councillors, however, are concerned at the number of informal "workshops" on issues before they go to the council and committees.

"I don't disagree with workshops but there is a fine line between substituting workshops for what should be agenda time," said Mrs Fletcher.

Mr Brown said the community's concern about openness was based on the worry that their voice would not be heard by the CCOs but he assured Aucklanders he was committed to ensuring they had a say.

One way of keeping the CCOs in line was the CCO monitoring unit, which reported quarterly on all aspects of the organisations, he said.