I was recently referred to by a journalist as a "tenacious" lawyer. However last year my dealings with bureaucracy and councils made the law courts seem a straightforward process in comparison.
I have had two previous dealings with councils on matters of public interest which gave me confidence in the process. With the former Auckland City Council it was over saving the Tepid Baths. That was in 2008 till the pool reopened in 2012.
Council employees wished to turn the pool into commercial premises, they had deliberately not done maintenance on the pool for eight years. Democracy won. Mayor John Banks was a star. He formed a working committee and after consultation with that group the council voted unanimously to restore the Tepid Baths. A major asset for Auckland City remains. Now referred to as "the jewel in the Crown".
The other proper working of the democratic process was with Thames Coromandel District Council. In 1939 the Williamson family gifted Williamson Park at Whangamata "to the people for their use for life".
In 2001 a consent application was made to build a restaurant in the park. Beverly Williamson, whose parents had gifted the park, asked me to help her to stop this happening.
Fortunately the council's lawyers and commissioners agreed that it was a breach of the gift. The council formally passed a resolution that in the future the park could not be used for commercial purposes. Unfortunately the council files and records relating to this period can no longer be found.
My first disappointment in the process came from the same council. In 2015 Thames-Coromandel District Council employees decided to change the rules relating to reserves and the council sought on behalf of promoters to have fenced and ticketed events. Permission was given without a public hearing and that Christmas, Williamson Park was largely closed to the public from December 30 until January 11.
The Council then sought a 15-year consent to have seven night events and 20 day events a year. Luckily this was required to be held with public notification (we had threatened to go to the Environment Court if this were not so). In late October there was a two-day consent hearing before a commissioner.
Our group, opposed to this application, had to form an incorporated society. It seems this is the only way to stand up to a council who have unlimited funds at ratepayers' expense. We tried to have a meeting with the council to discuss this. (There had never been a council debate on this proposal). Our request was declined.
Our society had to employ two experts and a lawyer and ultimately the commissioner granted only one ticketed fenced event outside December 28 - January 4, something we can accept.
The most recent matter I have been involved in, to a far lesser extent is the "Duke helicopter saga". When I became aware of the proposal I contacted the association and the Local Board. Both were opposed to having helicopters land on a boat shed on Sentinel Beach. This was ignored by council officers.
I am aware, as a surf lifesaving lifeguard for many years, that a helicopter must approach the beach with extreme care. It will cause water turbulence and sand blasting of people on the beach. The council, however, considered there was no need for public notification and proceeded to grant this consent to Mr Duke.
There was a public outcry and again individuals rallied and took a court action to oppose what the council had done. Fortunately the High Court ruled against the council and said there should be public notification for a number of reasons.
What can be taken from all of this? The Tepid Baths and (initially) Williamson Park were dealt with in an open informed way on which the council voted. The council never voted on the park and the helicopter issue, council officers exercised the power.
My observations are that councils are more and more being dictated to by bureaucrats and our elected representatives (apart from the Waitemata Local Board) are failing in their duty to stand up to them.
It can be no excuse that they have to rely on advice from staff. If they are not prepared to stand up and be counted then the public are forced to take on this mantle. It can be time consuming, and expensive, but we have to "keep the buggers honest".
• Gary Gotlieb is an Auckland barrister.