Not long ago I wondered here whether we need more than one government in a country where the whole population is no larger than an average city in the world. The question was prompted by a spate of Auckland Council decisions including banning fireplaces, quickly revoked, and tolling motorway ramps, which was not going to happen.
A keen and lively councillor, Cathy Casey, saw the column and got in touch. Would I like to tail her for a day and see what they do? Good idea.
The itinerary she sent for my chosen day, Wednesday of last week, was certainly full. Her work started at 6am on Facebook and I would need to be at the Town Hall by 8.30am for the first of three committees that day. She would break away from the last around 5pm and take a council e-bike to a meeting of the Albert-Eden local board. Could I ride an e-bike?
Never heard of them but okay.
She hadn't quite taken my point. I hadn't doubted elected members would be kept busy, I'd questioned the worth of the role given them these days when the real work is done by appointed agencies. This was a chance to find out.
The 8.30am meeting of the Environment, Climate Change and Natural Heritage Committee had to approve two sets of grants from dedicated funds. The first list contained 180 successful applicants and among them councillor Chris Darby spotted a grant for "Bluegreens" to do planting and pest control in the lower Meola Creek.
Was this the National Party's Bluegreens, he asked? Were political groups eligible? The granting officers, who had spent the bulk of the meeting explaining the fund's perfectly obvious purpose and procedures on overhead screens, were not sure. The councillors let it pass.
The public (six of us) were banished for the second item: grants for waste minimisation and innovation. Commercially sensitive. They wrapped up within the hour as almost a full council arrived to sit as the infrastructure committee. This had to be more meaty.
Chairman Mike Lee introduced a former regional councillor, Christine Rose, representing a newly formed Public Transport Users' Association which Lee too had joined. It had already noticed a problem for wheelchair access to the Pukekohe railways station.
This was more down-to-earth than I had expected but there wasn't much the members could do about it. A solution depended on 'AT', Auckland Transport, a "council-controlled organisation". The CCOs are council-appointed, not controlled.
AT executives were there to report that the Dominion Rd widening would be delayed, again. Finance was scarce and other projects had priority. Casey protested. The local boards that had fought to upgrade the Mt Roskill shops for the project. Don't panic, said Lee, also on AT, it wasn't the end of the world.
Elected councillors are not supposed to be discussing this sort of detail. Their role in modern "governance" is broad policy and strategy. The main item on their agenda was the "Greater Tamaki Consolidated Receiving Environment Stormwater Network Discharge Consent Prioritisation Consultation Results".
That was the heading on nine pages of palaver that could be boiled down to one sentence: what is the most effective way to maintain clean water in the Tamaki estuary? Drainage officials had drawn up a number of options: managing infrastructure and assets, managing growth, managing flooding, urban stream management, dealing with contamination of the marine environment, managing stormwater discharges to groundwater or stormwater effects on wastewater network?
They had spent much of this year in workshops and exchanging paper with 97 stakeholders, local boards, advisory panels, council staff and CCOs, iwi, government departments, environmental groups, business and community organisations -- asking which of the options they thought more important.
After all of that the officials were here to report, "There is not a large difference between the highest and lowest ranked issue, and the stormwater unit will therefore need to amalgamate and address all issues". Who would have thought?
The councillors were visibly thrilled by the next item, road culvert catchpits. Cleaners, they heard, used to leave muck in the sump below the pipe, now they must dig it all out and the weight of sediment is dropping. Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse said, "I am trying to think of how to put this in a great strategic context but it's actually quite practical."
She said it all.
Long ago when I covered councils, elected members took time out from real jobs. These days they need to be full-time to read the volume of paper produced for them, let alone spend most of every day in meetings. If the vacuous, mind-numbing verbiage they are fed is a terrible waste, imagine the cost of writing it? Up close it's worse than I thought.