Quite a number of people shared their frustrations with the Auckland Council in response to last week's column on the loss of our local government and wondered what we could do about it.
We can vote in September of course but unless we are offered a slate of candidates determined enough to take control of the whole operation and change the way it has been set up, nothing will happen.
There is never a shortage of new candidates promising a shake-up. Most will have no idea how powerless they will be if they get elected and how hard it will be to take control. But there is a way to eliminate most of them. If the shake-up they propose is just about council spending and staffing and debt and rates, put a line through their names. Those are not the fundamental problems.
We need hard-headed people willing to challenge the corporate model of government given to the "Super City" at its creation. The model, copied from the companies in the private sector, removes elected people from hands-on administration, restricting them to policy-making overall. It works in the private sector because elected boards of directors face the same measures of accountability as the chief executive they appoint. If the company does not maintain profitability and pay the dividends its shareholders expect, directors and managers are all in the same gun.
The public sector is different. Its ultimate measure of accountability is not profitability but political survival. That is a discipline faced directly by the elected representatives but not readily transmitted to their officials because the officials are hard to fire.
In fact the main reason the corporate model was adopted for public administration was to keep political influences at arm's length from administrative decisions.
There is something to be said for that, good decisions are not always popular. Their benefits might not be immediately obvious or may be counter intuitive and hard to explain.
But democracy matters too. The people we elect and can hold accountable for what is done, need to be in control of the organisation. This does not appear to be a problem in central government where ministers can usually interfere in departmental decisions if they feel the political need to do so.
Nor did it seem a problem in Auckland's local government before the creation of the Super City. As a citizen of North Shore, I never felt my council was too big or too far away to deal with local problems and concerns.
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Now I have to work through three tiers of administration — council, contractor and subcontractor — to try to sort out a small gate-locking problem for my tennis club in a local park and still a solution that seems simple does not get done.
Ward councillors are too "busy" in all-day meetings on subjects such as diversity and sustainability to look at problems on the ground.
Some of those who contacted me after last week's column said they'd been unable to even contact a councillor. The Super City is a travesty of democracy.
So how can we change it? Nominations for the council close in a few weeks. There might yet be time for enough candidates to get together and promise that if elected they will take control of their agenda.
They need to declare they will not spend most of their days in the council chamber wading through windy reports of no particular consequence. They will organise themselves into smaller committees, call for reports on things they want to know, meet once a week and spend more of their time with constituents.
They will assign themselves a portfolio and get alongside staff, keeping tabs on what is done and reporting results to the council.
I hoped Phil Goff might do something like this. I thought he'd be appalled to find he'd become mayor of a staff-driven organisation. But he appears to have done nothing about it. Surely there is something determined councillors can do, their role cannot be restricted by legislation. If it is, we need to look to national politics for a solution.
Next year the Super City will be 10. National, having set it up, should admit its mistake and put a review in its platform for next year's election.
Meantime, council nominations are open. We need 12 candidates determined to reclaim local democracy.
NOTE: This column has been amended to remove a paragraph which stated: "Local boards can be helpful but have no power to do more than ask for something to be done." In addition to their advocacy role, local boards have decision making powers and funds for local facilities and activities.