Phil Goff is seeking a second term as mayor of the Super City where he faces a potentially hostile council set on thwarting his policies and making life hell for council bureaucrats.
They call themselves the "B team," and are planning to defeat "Team Goff" at next month's local body elections.
Away from the mayoral contest between Phil Goff and John Tamihere, the Weekend Herald can reveal a strategy loosely co-ordinated by councillor Daniel Newman targeting several wards to win office.
The strategy has four goals. Defeat "Team Goff" councillors in Whau, Tamaki-Maungakiekie and North Shore wards. Hold Waitemata and Gulf Ward, hold both seats in Howick, and win the Papakura-Manurewa ward seat vacated by John Walker.
Goff has been so slack arse at relationships
Success will give the B team a majority on council, making life difficult for Goff if he is re-elected and butting heads with Tamihere should he win.
Newman, who represents the Papakura-Manurewa ward in South Auckland, is the de facto leader of the B team by virtue of his political skills, deep understanding of policy and the inner workings of council and ability to build relationships with colleagues snubbed by Goff.
Councillor Ross Clow, a close ally of Goff and chairman of the finance committee, has no time for Newman, who he calls "Rasputin Newman".
"He schemes and connives behind the scenes and doesn't do anything positive or constructive," Clow said.
Asked if there is a plan to gain control of council, Newman said: "You bet. There is an attempt to try to ensure Aucklanders elect Aucklanders who will reflect the community's expectations and not simply rubber-stamp what the bureaucracy want."
The plan is rooted in a toxic culture that has developed between Goff and B team members on council and a growing feeling that ratepayers and communities are being marginalised under the Super City.
The discord began with Goff dumping councillors Mike Lee and Chris Fletcher from the Auckland Transport board shortly after coming to office. A year later, he sacked councillor Wayne Walker as deputy chair of the regulatory committee by leaving a message on his answerphone.
This was followed by a letter to Goff in June 2018, signed by nine councillors, citing a distrustful political working relationship within council and dissatisfaction over the handling of a costly stadium report.
Goff talked about "improving relations" and operating an "open-door policy" but the wounds have not healed. Instead, the B team have found their mojo and inflicted losses on the mayor and his A team.
"Goff has been so slack-arse at relationships. He has no personal rapport. (Former Auckland Mayor) Len Brown didn't s**t on people to the extent this guy does," says Newman.
Walker and fellow Albany councillor John Watson say there is a "government within a government" culture - "the mayor and a small clique conducting what often seems like a secretive agenda which councillors have little insight into".
Mike Lee, who has been in local politics since 1992, condemns Goff's parliamentary style of politics over the collegial approach of local government.
"This guy almost takes delight in making enemies of people. You are either in the dominant caucus or not. It has not been helpful for Auckland," says Lee.
In a recent column in Ponsonby News headlined "Whose city is it anyway?" Lee said the council needs more democratic government, better accountability to the public, and checks and balances.
Efeso Collins, a Labour councillor for Manukau, says the council has been lacking a genuine contest of ideas. He wants a more collaborative approach from the mayor next term, "not just 'my door is open'".
Newman says though the B team do not vote together on every issue, there is a high degree of collaboration, and no avarice when people vote different ways, which does not exist across council.
"I want to recalibrate back to the 'Manukau way' of core services and infrastructure, democratic recourse, good social outcomes locally and bugger the bureaucracy," says Newman, a former Manukau City councillor.
Goff declined to be interviewed but in a statement refuted talk of operating a parliamentary system on council, saying he worked closely with National Party members on council.
"Everyone gets a fair go and my views on issues will be determined by the merits of the arguments raised on an evidence-based approach," Goff said, adding he received overwhelming voting support for his budgets.
"If a co-ordinated effort is being made to target seats on council, then it would be strange for people doing that to accuse others of introducing a parliamentary style of politics," he said.
The battles for control of Auckland Council
The knives are out for Chris Darby and Richard Hills, two Goff loyalists accused of trying to impose Queen St values on the relaxed lifestyle of Shore-ites.
After National's de facto ticket Auckland Future bombed horribly at the 2016 elections on the North Shore and elsewhere, the centre-right is taking a leaf out the left's handbook and letting communities do their own thing.
This has led to the formation of the "More for the Shore" ticket comprising local board stalwarts, former Alliance MP Grant Gillon and National Party member Danielle Grant.
"He's left and I'm right but we are completely committed to our community," says Grant.
Long-serving National Party member Terry Dunleavy says the North Shore needs to follow what Newman and his running mate Angela Dalton have done so skilfully in Manurewa- Papakura, and that is to organise supporters and get the vote out.
The North Shore strategy is based around the message that Goff & co are using the Shore as a cash cow, focusing on flashpoints like the Anzac St car park, Lake and Onewa Rds, and painting Darby and Hills as more interested in what happens in Queen St than local concerns.
"Nobody has got North Shore's back," says Gillon.
Darby and Hills are undeterred by the "dirty and negative" campaign being run by their opponents. Says Darby: "I'm mapping my own pathway to the future."
"People are telling me they don't like the negative campaign from Danielle and Grant," says Hills.
The pair deny claims they are wedded to Queen St, saying their wins for the Shore include $47 million for Lake Rd, a $61m business case for a new harbour crossing, a $12m upgrade of Takapuna's Hurstmere Rd and more buses and bus services.
Hills says the Kaipatiki Local Board, where Danielle Grant is deputy chair, has the largest work programme of the 21 local boards, including 47 per cent of citywide funding for kauri dieback.
Former Auckland councillor and North Shore mayor George Wood is unsure who will win the two ward seats, saying Darby and Hills are "here there and everywhere", but thinks that Hills' alignment to Goff will not help him. Hills has a slim majority of 128 votes. Darby has a healthy majority of 6500 votes.
In an unusual twist in Auckland local politics, Whau Local Board chairwoman Tracy Mulholland has quit as a Labour member and joined National's de facto Communities and Residents (C&R) ticket to challenge Labour's Ross Clow for the ward seat.
Newman says he actively encouraged Mulholland to stand after she was treated atrociously by the Labour Party, "leaving Clow scrambling after being too complacent for too long".
Mulholland says she was shocked at being told the toe the Labour Party line after being elected in 2016 and made chairwoman of the Whau Local Board.
"My duty as chair was to represent all of our community. I didn't caucus and pre-determine outcomes," she says.
Earlier this year, Mulholland says, matters became "pretty toxic" between board members and a senior member of the Labour Party was brought into to calm things down. Later, Mulholland and another board member, David Whitley, resigned from the Labour Party.
Mulholland is standing on a platform of "replacing old-school politicking by old-school politicians" and for change in council and CCOs.
Clow says Mulholland joined Labour to get elected to the board, had revealed herself to be pretty autocratic and alienated the board to the point it became rudderless.
"I'm disappointed because I helped Tracy quite a bit. She has no concept of no 'I' in team." Clow says Mulholland resigned from Labour on June 17 and declared herself a candidate for C&R 10 days later.
Clow says he would like to represent Whau for another six years, to see a number of new projects open including the Avondale library/community centre a new Whau swimming pool.
This is not so much a contest to defeat Labour's Josephine Bartley, more an opportunity to seize on boundary changes that favour C&R candidate Josh Beddell.
The addition of Ellerslie and half of St Johns into Maungakiekie-Tamaki adds about 7500 potential centre-right voters into a ward previously held by Denise Lee, who quit council to become a National MP in 2017.
Bartley is publicly backing Goff's re-election campaign but has not bought into the A and B team politicking since winning Lee's seat in a byelection last year where she beat Beddell by 1577 votes.
Beddell, 33, comes from the old C&R school of cutting waste, keeping rates down and focusing on core services without offering specifics.
"It's a must-win seat, and if we don't win it will be tough to get change around the council table," he says.
Bartley says she has heard talk of plans to target certain councillors, but it is silly and about power-tripping and egos.
"They are not thinking about Auckland, they are not thinking about my communities who will be affected by having a different representative," she says.
Bartley admits to being worried by the boundary changes into areas that traditionally do not vote Labour but hopes people look past party politics at the candidates and their track records.
No-one seriously thinks Manurewa Local Board chairwoman Angela Dalton won't join Newman on the B team to replace John Walker, who is standing down for health reasons.
The pair have been campaigning together relentlessly for months and are deeply connected into every nook and cranny of the South Auckland ward.
Newman is lending his support to Paul Young, the first Asian councillor on the council, who is standing alongside Sharon Stewart, a high-profile local stalwart. Young has unofficial backing from National's MP for Pakuranga, Simeon Brown.
The hardest ward to call is Waitemata and Gulf where Mike Lee, a vocal critic of Goff and the Super City, had his arm twisted by Newman and several other councillors to stand again.
Lee cut ties this year with City Vision - the left-leaning ticket had endorsed him as an independent in the past - which went on to select Waitemata Local Board chairwoman Pippa Coom as a "fresh face".
Complicating matters, C&R selected businesswoman Sarah Trotman in July which at least one senior member of the right-wing ticket tried to prevent in order to help Lee, who has a left-leaning background but is a highly valued member of the B team.
This has created a genuine three-way contest that could be crucial to the A and B teams.
What will change if the B team wins control of council?
Profound changes will take place at council and CCOs if the B team get a majority on council. Goff or Tamihere, with one of 21 votes on council, will have little choice but to heed the wishes of the B team.
Newman says if every member of the B team brings one policy to the table a lot will change. As someone from South Auckland, home to a lot of big families, he wants to protect weekly rubbish collections and end plans for fortnightly collections.
He wants to see a "rebalancing" of transport spending so the 80 per cent of commuters in his ward who travel by car get better roads and footpaths.
"Auckland Transport and Auckland Council is massively over-extending on this romantic delusion that life in future exists on the back of a bicycle," Newman says.
The B team want to have councillors sitting on the board of Auckland Transport again, and withdraw support for light rail to the airport in favour of heavy rail.
Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA) and Panuku Development Auckland will have their wings severely clipped.
Watson and Walker plan to end RFA's latest "shambolic stadium strategy", keep speedway at Western Springs and support Eden Park as the city's main stadium.
Similarly, they will lead moves to stop the privatisation of marina land by Panuku for waterfront apartments. If Newman gets his way, Panuku will not be allowed "garage sales" in B team wards to support developments in A team wards.
The B team also want a major review of the Super City model and real change; they believe the Super City review proposed by Goff will be all talk and no action.
Watson says a case could be made for integrating RFA and Panuku - and possibly Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed) - back into council.
Mayor Phil Goff
Deputy mayor Bill Cashmore
*These councillors lean towards Goff