There was political drama at the Auckland Council yesterday when members of the unelected Maori Statutory Board asked for a seat at the table of a $40 million theatre project.

Maori Statutory Board member John Tamihere said he deeply resented comments from councillor Mike Lee about Maori participation at a governance level for Auckland Theatre Company's proposed 600-seat theatre at Wynyard Quarter.

"We are not here as a Mafia. I'm not here to blackmail anybody on behalf of the duties and obligations we have to dispense by the statute we operate under," Mr Tamihere said.

Mr Lee - a critic of the Maori Statutory Board set-up, which gives unelected board members seats on council committees - supported the intent of a motion to ensure Maori involvement in the performing arts project.

But he argued there was no need to make Maori representation at board level a condition of ratepayer funding when the theatre company had agreed to do so.

A motion at the strategy and finance committee by Maori Statutory Board member Wayne Knox, seconded by Mr Tamihere, was passed by 15 votes to six.

The motion called on the Maori Statutory Board to be satisfied that the theatre project provided for Maori aspirations and participation, including the development of a Maori performing arts strategy and a governance role.

"I get the impression that the theatre company is more than happy to work with Maori without making that a condition," Mr Lee said.

Auckland Theatre Company general manager Lester McGrath said Maori participation in the theatre project would be at the board table.

"It is important for us that [Maori] do have a seat at the table. This is something we have been in discussion with Creative New Zealand about for some time and we welcome this process," he said.

The strategy and finance committee voted to approve $10 million towards the $40 million cost of the new theatre, subject to a number of conditions being addressed to the council's satisfaction by December 2011. These include a peer review, detailed designs and revised costings.

Previous critics of the project, including Mr Lee and Orakei councillor Cameron Brewer, swung in behind after fierce lobbying by the strong arts vote in their wards.

Mr McGrath said the theatre company, which has found itself homeless after losing the SkyCity theatre, could now charge ahead and source the rest of the money from trusts, corporate sources and individuals.

"Our board wouldn't be entering into this unless it thought it could do it on time and on budget."

He said work on the theatre, which will be alongside the ASB headquarters at Wynyard Quarter, could start early next year and open mid-2013.