Bread and circuses

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    City elections 2022 started with histrionics over a waterfront stadium, now hopefully abated with the withdrawal of Leo Malloy as a mayoral candidate.

    Out of all proportion to the rest of the waterfront – and on a visual par with the port’s grotesquely ugly cranes and container behemoths – it seems a vanity project at best. A giant, windowless doughnut on a site soon to be six feet under water could be seriously embarassing.

    Auckland as a supercity has been left in a desperate leadership deficit this last 30 years and I’d like to think, with that quasi Coloseum out of the way, that most of us can now feel entitled to some serious work on sorting out the basics of a happy and liveable city. The city’s lack of advocacy on important issues including poverty, housing shortages and rising sea levels also need a good airing.

    It’s also fortunate that top city officials will not be frantically trying to drum up offical voting numbers this election cycle as it was three years ago, a process compromised when some candidate lobbies showed up to pitch to the newly converted at enrolment booths. 

    We need work. Engagement. Shifting the inertia. Making a difference. A sense that we can get the current Mayor’s austerity monkeys off our back and balance social justice for a while.  Healthy voting numbers would follow.

    In the city as it is, we are functionally invisible; here to be managed in mind and body. Yet robust debate is essential in participatory democracy and grass-roots decision making; not the inconvenience that an entrenched senior management so fears.

    Three years ago, Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said local body workshops behind closed doors were a “black hole of transparency” and that the practice left a gap in the legal framework, enabling top staff to manipulate reports and keep negative information from the public. Briefing a select committee on LGIOMA practices which “raised systemic questions about existing oversight and transparency in local government”, he told MPs that changes were necessary to police dysfunctional and secretive relationships between council staff, councillors and mayors.

    “I can’t see any easy mechanism for there to be a way in which that dysfunction is therapeutically addressed,” the ombudsman said. “It just festers at times and gets worse.”

    The newly-elected Waiheke Local Board was towed into the closed-doors workshop format about the same time, the official briefing them saying excluding the public would cut down on any ‘rarking up’ of community issues based on misinformation and half truths fed to them by “some members” who might perniciously “play to the gallery” and interupt workshops.

    It would also cut down on threats and misreporting leading to members being victims of bullying behaviour on social media, said the official, now long gone.

    “What should be an opportunity for the board to learn more about projects and provide initial direction turns into a political ‘show’ with the board missing an opportunity to understand issues because [some members] are more interested in creating drama and intrigue”, he said. As a result, neither board members or council officials would get what they needed out of the interaction.

    He also alleged it risked “reputational damage” for the council and for the board to miss out on “proposals from the Transport and Panuku property CCOs that they would rather reveal in private”.

    Why all this concern? Of course it suits the bureaucracy which gets the last word on anything they want – or don’t want. They can control the narrative and keep it ‘confidential’ behind closed doors for years. Or, as on Waiheke this last few years, they can balance the books on enormous local rates revenue but deliver almost nothing.

    This month, the Chief Ombusdsman’s national headlines again say that council workshops excluding the public are undermining local government and that requirements for meetings can’t be avoided simply by calling what is really ‘meeting’ a ‘workshop.’

    “The public may become suspicious if councils repeatedly use closed workshops or informal meetings to discuss issues. Local government meetings must be open to everyone unless councillors pass a formal resolution to exclude the public.” He says some councils may be incorrectly applying the law. “Local bodies are not allowed to exclude the public so they can hold ‘free and frank’ discussions behind closed doors. 

    “Councillors are elected to provide a voice for the communities they serve. They should feel free to express their opinions in the same way robust exchanges occur in the debating chamber of Parliament.”

    Holding workshops could create a perception that an issue has already been decided before it is brought to an open meeting for debate and a decision, the ombudsman says. 

    He wouldn’t be wrong. And a vast pool of local knowledge has been lost in the wastage.

    • Liz Waters

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