Auckland is about to get a new boss. No, not the mayor. The chief executive of Auckland Council, Stephen Town, has resigned and will leave office in June. The search for a replacement is underway.
This is a critical moment for the city. Power plays run rampant. The budget is under pressure. Public confidence in council is low and popular expectations are far greater than can readily be satisfied. There are great, transformative projects in the wings and the fate of almost every one of them is uncertain.
And on top of all that, we have an unprecedented health crisis and we know it could do us great harm. What we rebuild once Covid-19 has done its damage could be the making, or breaking, of Auckland's future. A city with a resilient economy and lifestyle, an envy of the world, or a city that cannot cope?
The council's chief executive, if they have the skill, can play a decisive role in all this. In a very real sense, they run the city.
And right now, even without the virus, the future of our port, our streets, our transport networks, our harbour, our waterworks, our beaches, our parks and playing fields, our libraries and recreational facilities, our social services and the entire vital web of environmental programmes council runs: they're all in the balance.
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Lots of factors contribute to this, but the most urgent is budget. Later this year council will begin updating the 10-year budget: the most critical set of decisions any council makes.
Currently, ahead of that, council is cutting staff, which inevitably means cutting services. It's a Town initiative, supported by Mayor Phil Goff, to draw a new line on spending.
But, like most cost-cutting, it's more than that. Council is shedding parts of its operation it doesn't want. That is, parts the CEO and mayor don't want.
The highest profile example right now is the axing of the Auckland Design Office, currently working its way through the legal fiction of the "staff consultation" phase.
ADO trod on toes. It wanted Auckland to build a people-friendly city centre and waterfront, with a much reduced presence of cars. And it didn't want to have to focus so much on the city centre, either, but wanted greater capacity to work across the whole city.
Those are all goals endorsed by every public consultation and survey the council undertakes. They were central to the platform on which the mayor himself won such a resounding victory in the election last year.
Behind the scenes, though, ADO was resented. Stephen Town's council, it turns out, is a place where departmental bosses are allowed to cling jealously to their siloed power bases, planners are stuck with ideas half a century old about how cars fit into a city, engineers see structures and not the people who use them, accountants hoard their pennies and politicians are too weak to intervene. ADO wanted more for Auckland, when less was preferred.
So its senior roles are being disestablished and other staff disbursed to regulatory and administrative departments where they can do no harm.
The process is led by Megan Tyler, the council's new chief of strategy, but this would not be happening unless Town wanted it to. As for Goff, he says it's an operational matter but that makes no sense. The outgoing CEO would not be able to destroy the unit if Goff said no.
Tyler has told the ADO staff, in a document the Herald has seen, that council is grateful for what they have done: "Urban design plays a key role in the development of places and spaces in Tāmaki Makaurau ... Aucklanders now have an expectation of quality and excellence in Auckland's built form, and urban design plays an important part in achieving this."
True. She listed the ways in which ADO feels excluded by other parts of council: its skills could be used more, its advice sought earlier on projects, its capacity to take on work spread more widely over the whole city.
But she went on to say: "We have matured as an organisation, including in the role and understanding of urban design. There is no longer a need for a stand-alone urban design department – we need to focus on embedding the thinking and skills into our planning and consenting departments. Also, there are economies of scale in terms of support and project management skills …"
Such breathtaking logic. What you're doing is vital, so all the key people doing it will lose their jobs. You have been obstructed, undermined and ignored by managers in other parts of council, so we are putting the remaining staff under the thumb of those very managers.
The Institute of Architects and several other groups have written to council to express their dismay. It's not that they or anyone else thought the ADO was perfect. But its value was widely accepted. It needed to be defended and strengthened, not garrotted.
Town and Goff could still call a halt to this. Goff could declare that the city needs a chief of design, with a powerful office to back them. He could require the incoming CEO to work out how to make it happen. He could make sure that person has the future-focused outlook and necessary modern-city skills to do that.
It will be an important challenge for the incoming boss, but it won't be their biggest. Right now, Covid-19 looks like providing that. In this awful time, there are already a great many basic functional demands on council and the CEO. Services must keep working, even as service workers must be kept safe.
But in addition to the daily pressures, council has the chance to look ahead. As Christchurch asked itself after the earthquakes, we should ask ourselves too: What's the better city we can build from this?
If, for example, the central city empties of shoppers in the coming weeks, what will be the best way to get them back? Hint: it will not be by keeping all the streets open to traffic. It will not be simply by longing for "business as usual", either.
How does the central city fill its streets with people? That's the question to answer.
At the same time, internally, the new CEO will have that siloed council culture to address. When Stephen Town took up his role, he established a kind of "family council", where the family was the group of council-owned companies and other agencies, and they all met regularly.
It was a valuable word, family, suggesting that despite all the bickering blood would be thicker and they would all work for the common interest. It also suggested Town was Dad.
But the silos persist, so maybe no one's listening to Dad. Panuku, Auckland Transport and the council's various planning departments struggle to coordinate their "place making" activities. One astonishing example: there are subdivisions and newly rebuilt older areas in south Auckland that have not been provided with decent public transport.
As for Ports of Auckland, its autonomy is even more remarkable. We own the port, through the council, but by law the council cannot tell the port what to do. That means the board of the port is answerable to no one. It's as if it doesn't have any owners.
Neither Town nor Goff has been seen to push hard against this or cajole the port into the council fold. Family? Forget it, they've left home.
Council's getting a new Dad, or Mum. Maybe they won't stand for such nonsense.