Our biggest city is on the brink of an era which shifts power to new untested agencies. Auckland reporter Bernard Orsman asks who will be accountable
The Auckland Super City is less than six months away, but the face of local democracy is hard to find.
Early next month, the Government is due to pass the third and final piece of the legislative jigsaw for a new structure, which, in the words of Prime Minister John Key, seeks to untangle the competing interests of local councils holding Auckland back and make the region greater.
But while virtually no-one disagrees with the need for a new streamlined system of local government to lift Auckland's economic and social performance, plenty dispute the Government's prescription and handling of the reforms.
At public hearings on the third bill, lawyer Douglas Allan summed up a common feeling by saying the Government's brave new world for Auckland "creates a corporate city, not a democratic city".
"The bill has far too much decision-making in the corporate, rather than the democratic end of the spectrum," he told MPs on the Auckland governance select committee.
Keith Sharp, a spokesman for the Panmure Community Action Group, hoped the reforms would make Auckland more democratic, efficient and accountable to citizens. Instead, Auckland was resembling a turkey invited to Christmas dinner.
"We all know the starring role a turkey plays at Christmas - decapitated, plucked, gutted, stuffed, stitched-up, roasted and carved up. And when the diners have eaten their fill, all you have left is a dead carcass."
Allan and Sharp's messages are primarily directed at a public lockout of decisions affecting Auckland's greatest jewels - including the waterfront - and the uncertain role of grassroots democracy in the Super City, which comes into being on November 1.
Aucklanders of all political persuasions are aghast at the Government's agenda for seven council-controlled organisations (CCOs) to run more than 75 per cent of services in the new Super City.
The unelected directors of the CCOs will be virtually unanswerable to the public, not hold public meetings or front up when things go wrong.
The largest of these CCOs, Auckland Transport, will be spending about $680 million of Auckland ratepayers' money, or more than half of the Super City rates take.
The scale and complexity of Auckland Transport will extend to everything in the roading corridor, from building major new arterial roads to providing cycleways, maintaining footpaths, issuing parking fines, mowing berms, flowerbeds, outdoor dining and graffiti.
Four Government departments opposed the mega-transport CCO. Treasury and Internal Affairs believed there was no rationale for such a unique approach and elected politicians needed to be clearly accountable for transport funding decisions.
Under the model, the directors of the waterfront CCO will have free rein to come up with a new masterplan for the waterfront and implement it, despite the waterfront being a highly charged political environment. Queens Wharf and the waterfront stadium are testimony to that.
The Government is also setting up a well-flagged CCO to provide all water services for 1.4 million Aucklanders, and four smaller CCOs.
Politicians, business leaders and commentators have joined ordinary Aucklanders in opposing the decision by the Government to "impose" CCOs on Auckland and appoint the initial boards of directors. The normal practice is for councils to establish CCOs after public consultation.
One of the most vocal critics is Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Barnett, who says Government-appointed people will drive the show as opposed to people giving effect to the vision of the Mayor and Auckland Council.
Commentator Rod Oram says the Government's "weak and woolly" designs for CCOs will merely end up trading the current political dysfunction for a quasi-commercial dysfunction. Auckland Regional Council chairman Mike Lee believes unified governance is a myth.
"Instead, we will have three quite separate and powerful fiefdoms running Auckland (transport, water and the waterfront), but only one democratically accountable - the Auckland Council. However, even within the Auckland Council, most of the important responsibilities will be put under the control of the boards of council-controlled organisations," he says.
Political activist John Minto says while unelected directors will run the city and spend the majority of ratepayers' money, the elected councillors will twiddle their thumbs on the sidelines.
It is clear the Government intends to restrict the mayor and 20 councillors on the Auckland Council to a regional planning role - such as writing a spatial plan setting out the long-term vision and strategic direction for the region - and overseeing CCOs to carry out most services.
Less clear, is how the Auckland Council, 19 local boards and CCOs will engage with one another.
Despite overwhelming submissions calling for local boards to have meaningful powers to be included in the second Super City bill, the Government opted for the principle that "decisions are best made at the local level unless there is good reason not to".
The principle is well-intended, but the practical reality is the power and funding to determine local issues will be entrenched with the Auckland Council and CCOs. This has several downsides, including the prospect of local boards having their wings clipped and being treated with the same disdain many community boards currently experience.
Strong local boards are crucial for the success of the Super City, but at the moment it looks as if they will have a voice but no power. Unless they are treated as equal partners the danger is parochial issues will get mixed up with regional governance, sparking a new dysfunction.
Labour's spokesman on Auckland Issues Phil Twyford says the Super City should be a work in progress, but has turned into a "bloody mess" in a highly compressed timeframe under Local Government Minister Rodney Hide.
As he sees it, the Government is following a corporatisation agenda that takes the power out of the hands of local communities and gives the bread and butter of local government to hand-picked businessmen.
"People right across the city and political spectrum have been shocked by it, because it is as much about transparency and accountability as anything."
Because the CCOs decision-making processes are not open to public scrutiny, LGNZ says "transparency in the new Auckland City will be significantly less than Auckland citizens have historically experienced and expected, and less than what citizens in other communities will continue to receive".
Though the Auckland Council will set the broad objectives and performance targets for CCOs in an annual statement of intent, there are concerns the third bill is too weak and gives directors carte blanche to ignore their political masters and regional plans.
Concerns have also been expressed that large and well-resourced CCOs, such as Auckland Transport and Watercare Services, will be able to shape regional plans while the Auckland Council will lack the resources or expertise to hold them to account.
Hide and Transport Minister Steven Joyce have argued that transparency and accountability is a key feature of CCOs, while National's John Carter, who chairs the Auckland governance select committee, has flagged changes to tighten up transparency and accountability provisions in the third bill. He says the committee accepted "there has to be cohesion, there has to be transparency, there is also the need for the Auckland Council to be the final decision-maker".
Hide agrees. Submitters to the bill, he says, want assurances the council will control the CCOs, that the CCOs are under democratic control and local boards will play a significant role in their communities.
"And I'm hopeful the select committee will apply its mind to the interaction between the local boards and CCOs."
Hide strongly rejects the suggestion that democracy is being sacrificed for a corporate Super City, and argues the model has a clarity that will strengthen democracy and accountability. CCOs were far more transparent and accountable than placing services in departments of the Auckland Council, he says.
"At the end of the day, CCOs are totally owned and controlled by the council. The council can sack them and after 2012 the council can reabsorb them, bar Auckland Transport. This is a big change but it is overdue. It will make a big difference to Auckland and New Zealand, all for the good. For the first time Aucklanders will have an ability to vote for a mayor and council which can deliver a vision and direction for Auckland."
David Wilson, director of the Institute of Public Policy at Auckland University of Technology, believes the Government has become mesmerised with making the Super City more efficient at delivering services at the cost of a huge democratic deficit.
He says the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance identified the need for a better governance structure in Auckland to provide more responsibility to address the four well-beings - economic, social, cultural and environmental - in partnership with central government.
"But what we have ended up with is the same mish-mash of central government being loathe to devolve responsibility, money and power to Auckland."
EVOLUTION OF A SUPER CITY
* After years of infighting between Auckland's councils, Labour set up a Royal Commission on Auckland Governance in 2008.
* In March 2009, the Commission released a weighty report with a Super City structure comprising a single Auckland Council, a single mayor and six local councils. It concluded: "Regional government is weak and fragmented. Community engagement is poor."
* Eleven days later, PM John Key and Local Government Minister Rodney Hide announced the Government's Super City model. Among other things, it replaced six local councils with 20 to 30 local boards and rejected plans for three Maori seats.
* The Government's mantra is to "create one Auckland, which has strong regional governance, integrated decision making, greater community engagement and improved value for money".
* Under urgency, the Government passed the Local Government (Auckland Reorganisation) Bill in May 2009, abolishing Auckland's eight councils and creating the Super Auckland Council. The bill set up the Auckland Transition Agency to meld the councils into a single entity.
* A further piece of legislation contains the nuts and bolts of the Super City. Most contentious are plans for seven council-controlled organisations to run more than 75 per cent of council services. The CCOs will be run by non-elected directors operating behind closed doors at arm's length from politicians.
* On March 11, the Local Government Commission released the final boundaries for the Auckland Council and 21 local boards.
* Two weeks later, Doug McKay, a businessman with no local government experience, was appointed interim chief executive of the Super City. He will be paid $675,000, plus an incentive bonus of $67,500.
The elected council of 20 councillors and mayor is being set up to focus on "big picture" planning and region-wide decisions. A priority will be to develop a spatial plan outlining a vision for the region and guiding its growth and development. Many services will be delivered by Council Controlled Organisations, while oversight of local issues will be devolved to local boards. Council responsibilities include:
* Setting annual rates and water prices
* Governance of CCOs
* Funding local boards
* Regional environmental strategy and programmes including stormwater
* Resource consents
21 elected boards will oversee local services (eg: parks, libraries) and take responsibility for local issues, liaising with the council and its CCOs. Boards will:
* Prepare 3-year local plans and negotiate funding with the council.
* Consult with communities, including iwi, eg to provide input into the council's spatial plan.
* Undertake local initiatives, eg rubbish removal, environmental projects.
COUNCIL CONTROLLED ORGANISATIONS
Seven "arms length" agencies with appointed boards will manage the following areas:
* Transport (including roading & public transport maintenance and improvements).
* Water and wastewater
* Waterfront Development
* Investments (including airport & ports)
* Tourism and Economic Development
* Regional Facilities (including Auckland Museum, Art Gallery, Zoo.
* Property Holdings
What is a Spatial Plan?
* Sets out the long-term vision and strategic direction for the region
* Outlines policies, priorities and programmes needed to achieve strategic direction
* Visually illustrates how the region may develop, including sequencing of growth and infrastructure provision
* Plans location and mix of residential, business and industrial activities