Auckland Mayor Phil Goff and 15 other council staff are heading off on a $38,000 ratepayer-funded trip to Blenheim.
During a prolonged one-hour discussion in Auckland Council's governing body on Thursday, the risk of the conference on local governance being seen as a "jaunt" and a "junket" were weighed up against its educational value.
The three-day trip to the annual Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) conference from July 15 to 17 will cost $2410 per person.
The speaking panel will include National leader Judith Collins, Minister of Housing Megan Woods, Minister of Agriculture Damien O'Connor and economist Shamubeel Eaqub.
The social itinerary includes a cocktail reception, a three-course dinner across two wineries, a black tie dinner and a breakfast hosted by science educator Michelle Dickinson, also known as her TV alter-ego Nanogirl.
The conference MC will be TV reporter Paddy Gower.
Most vocal of the five Auckland Councillors who opposed sending a 16-member delegation was Finance and Performance committee chair Desley Simpson.
"We've got four people that we need to send to the AGM. Is that correct? Why can't those four people be our representatives full stop?" Simpson asked of the Auckland Council governance services staff who recommended a 16-member party.
"I believe we should be at the table but I don't believe we should be at the numbers that are suggested."
Included in the 16-member delegation were six Auckland councillors including the mayor, Auckland Council chief executive Jim Stabback, and a selection of local board members from across the Auckland region.
"I've had a look at the programme and I don't believe there is anything on the programme by way of speakers etcetera that we can't access on our own," Simpson said.
"Last year we sent two people. We are not necessarily any better ahead financially. We are still going out there talking about being $1 billion short as a result of Covid and we've gone absolutely over the line, in my opinion, when it comes to spending on this. I'm not convinced of the benefits."
Last year, Auckland Council was forced to fill a $750 million hole in its Covid-19 "emergency budget" and had to cut 500 fulltime staff.
However, Goff said while he personally "hate[ed] conferences" and would prefer to attend online, it was important Auckland had a substantial enough presence there to not appear "arrogant".
The conference will comprise 600 attendees within and associated to New Zealand's district and regional councils and local boards.
"There is a bit of a feeling around the country that because we're big we're arrogant, we're dismissive of what everyone else thinks, and if we send three people down that would be seen as an arrogant statement of disregard," Goff said.
"I'm not one to advocate any extravagant expenditure or junkets, but this isn't a junket.
"We don't go down there to enjoy the vineyards of Blenheim. We go to participate in the conference."
The conference is sold as a form of professional development for local elected officials and includes presentations and workshops on topics such as natural disaster response, economic decision making and working with Māori communities.
An annual general meeting will also debate various remits on local government processes from around the country, and there is a 2021 LGNZ Excellence Awards ceremony.
Yet, there is also an extensive "social programme" which includes a cocktail reception at ASB Theatre Marlborough costing $70 each, a two-option winery dinner costing $120 at Allan Scott Twelve Trees Restaurant or Wither Hills Winery Restaurant, a $50 breakfast with Michelle Dickinson and a black tie conference dinner at Stadium 2000 for $160 a seat.
Auckland Councillor Richard Hills was among those selected to attend the LGNZ conference and said his experiences in past years were that it was important to build relationships with Government figures and defend Auckland against regional resentments.
"It's a shame we debate stuff like this for so long and billion-dollar budgets go past," Hills said.
"So for me a trip to Blenheim is not just some fun jaunt. I've never been to Blenheim.
"The 2019 conference, I attended on my birthday. There were 600 delegates and we're a third of the country of elected members and we will be representing 2 per cent of the overall delegates.
"In those rooms a lot of the time there is a lot of Auckland hate, discussion and misinformation and most of the time I've spent defending our city in front of a minister, in front of officials."
However, councillor John Watson said the length of debate on Thursday was "actually important because it's all to do with appearance".
"Sure the sums of money might not be that great in the scheme of things but now more so than ever it's very important how things look to our ratepayers," Watson said.
Councillor Cathy Casey agreed: "In this current climate we should be paring it back to the absolute minimum. It's still seen as a junket by people out there."
Councillor Tracy Mulholland also "strongly objected" to the size of the delegation and said from her past experience of the LGNZ conference she didn't think elected officials learned a substantial amount.
Councillor Wayne Walker said he was "staggered" online attendance wasn't something he'd heard more about from the LGNZ conference organisers to "enable more engagement".
However, councillor Linda Cooper strongly defended any accusations the conference was for leisure or "individual professional development".
"If you weren't an elected member you would not be doing this. It's clearly work," Cooper said.
Despite the anxiety expressed in Thursday's Governing Body meeting, the recommendation to send a 16-member Auckland Council delegation to the LGNZ conference was approved 15 votes to five.