Although on notice from day one of the new local government term that a deep clean of the city’s operations and CCOs was imminent, the city’s chief executive officer, in a symposium with incoming elected board members and councillors this week, was heard to field that tired old distraction about rearranging the city’s (blameless) libraries.
The monolithic Auckland Council supercity is currently paying $1.2 million a day in interest – a figure that’s not going down any time soon. Its annual budget shows its annual wages bill has just gone past a billion dollars.
Furthermore, in the ten days since the local body elections, a strong and unflattering light has been shone on Auckland Council’s cohorts of professional directors with fingers in many pies and elastic mandates for semi-autonomous council operations including property CCO Eke Panuku which, with the aid of ratepayer finance, operates a developer arm and proposes and disposes of local parks and spare land assets.
Yet, there is an opportunity, a patch of blue sky, that needs to be seized in order to correct the fundamental problems and failures that have bedevilled the supercity since the beginning, according to veteran Auckland politician Mike Lee who was voted back into the council to represent the Hauraki Gulf islands and the Waitematā inner city ward after three years in quiet retirement on Waiheke.
“In terms of the finances, there is so much fat in the situation, its management is so egregiously wasteful, that the situation won’t be beyond retrieval. It would be far more worrying if council had been rigorously and tightly run in recent years and there was nothing to fall back on,” he says with quiet optimism.
As it is, “we are close to losing Auckland, losing Waiheke – to losing the whole show and ending up like the infamous US cities that were bankrupted from capitalism’s sustained ripping off of the public by a few favourite corporates which had done well amid a sea of destruction and normalised conflict,” he says.
Auckland’s new mayor Wayne Brown is also warning his city’s residents that an economic and fiscal storm is on its way. And that he will do his best to protect vulnerable ratepayers.
“Aucklanders don’t need council rates increases to add to the agony,” he said. “We must do whatever we can to avoid or at least minimise those rates increases, to reduce the pressure on young and lower-income home owners, who can least afford it.”
At an Auckland Council symposium for its 170 newly elected members on Tuesday, the new mayor said he wanted less paperwork, more power for local boards and council committees and for delineated decision making for local boards that are the closest to the communities that are affected by them.
He said decisions and recommendations should only be sent upwards through council if the law or exceptional circumstances demanded it. “I do not want everyone just making recommendations upwards, downwards and sideways – generating thousands of pages of unread reports.”
Brown acknowledged some progress had been made by the previous council to empower local boards but argued the council needs to go “further and faster”. He would like boards to be given clear capped budgets for their communities, have the sole power to decide how to spend it, and have the sole political and legal accountability over the funds and decisions.
“You might even find the mayor saying, ‘I support the committee’s right to make the decision, even if I don’t agree with it,’” he told the meeting.
For council-controlled organisations and other agencies, the new mayor said his Letters of Expectation “will be much more specific than has been the practice over the last six years”.
The mayor called on elected members immediately after his landslide election win to be “out there in public” advocating for communities, for what was promised on the election trail, and for what they were going to deliver.
He has also called for local board members to feed in their ideas so that the council’s Letters of Expectation had real “grunt” and that CCOs “better include” real, meaningful outcomes in their draft Statements of Corporate Intent for the governing body to review, rather than platitudes.
“Aucklanders aren’t interested [in] bland statements about improving the bus service,” he said. “They demand clear measurable targets about the minimum acceptable percentage of buses arriving on time, and the minimum acceptable average patronage.
“Let’s work on that type of thing together.”
Wouldn’t that be a pleasure? • Liz Waters