Like the residents of "Greater Wellington" before them, the good folk of Hawkes Bay this week voted resoundingly against an amalgamation of their local governments.

Aucklanders don't read, hear or possibly care much about the debates that rage in other parts of the country when people are given a vote on these mergers. But if we did we would hear a lot of references to Auckland.

There is a constant refrain along the lines of, "We don't want a bar of what has happened in Auckland", to which advocates reply, "We want to assure you we're not proposing to copy the Auckland model".

The interesting thing is, you don't hear these sentiments very much in Auckland. The Super City seems to have been accepted here as a fact of life and the debate, such as it was, is over. Yet people in other parts of the country must be forming their views from talking to us.


Thinking back, the rest of the country always did seem more interested in this subject than those of us who were about to lose our local government. Maybe we were just resigned to it because we weren't getting a vote.

These days it is probably not until we are asked the question by an anxious visitor from Hawkes Bay that we stop to ask ourselves seriously, has a single-city government turned out to be a good thing? The answer we offer is probably ponderous and equivocal but obviously we are giving those from other places the conclusion that we have lost something important, and we have.

The amalgamated Auckland Council is a big modern organisation with its head offices in a city tower block and touch-screen standing computers to greet you when you go in search of someone at a public counter. It is so remote that if by chance you discover your inquiry is something still handled at the previous councils' offices in Takapuna or Henderson, it is a positive relief.

There, you will still find people at front counters, officers who might come down to the lobby and talk to you in side-rooms if necessary, regulatory staff who know your street, and if they don't know the precise building you are talking about, they might come and see it. But for how much longer?

Big organisations steadily grow away from those they are supposed to serve. They become absorbed in their internal structures, procedures, systems and measurements. The push for mergers of city and district councils usually comes from business lobbies that see the same opportunities for savings and "synergies" that cause big companies to amalgamate commercial operations that should be competing.

But some sort of sixth sense tells the public a bigger organisation is going to cost more than the sum of its parts, that it will set up more levels of management and look for savings from services on the ground.

At least organisations in the private sector stand to lose money if services suffer. The public sector has only democracy to keep it in touch with its customers, and democracy in Auckland's local government has been sidelined.

Aucklanders are now accustomed to controversies in which the elected mayor and council members do not know what is happening. The Pt Chevalier primary school that was to be charged $90 for a picnic in its local park this week was a perfect example of everything that is going wrong.

To Christine Fletcher, who chairs the council's parks committee, it came as a complete surprise. The council's event facilitation manager, Juliette Jones, though, knew all about it. She explained that the charge was in line with a new Trading & Events in Public Places Bylaw that also covered outdoor dining, mobile vendors and markets. It sounds like restaurants' outside tables will carry a surcharge this summer.

At $90 it was evidently a discount to the school, covering only the administration cost. Auckland Council's regulatory charges are a story waiting to be told.

If you wonder how council members could not be aware of the implications of their decisions, you need to sit in on their meetings. They work under a theory of governance that says elected bodies are for setting broad policy and must leave the finer details of its application to staff.

Accordingly, council meetings are fed a diet of voluminous stodge written by planners and policy analysts who say nothing concrete. Local boards, set up to keep the council in touch with communities, are similarly fed and seldom heard.

Local boards lack media attention. City and regional newspapers like amalgamations. The larger unit is better aligned with their markets, providing a clearer focus for elections and bigger news.

It takes amalgamation polls to reflect what people really want: a responsive body nearby.