Hard News by Russell Brown


Auckland: where only one man votes

The complaint from Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief Michael Barnett in this morning's Herald – that the Auckland Transition Agency is behaving as an instrument for central government to force its desires on Aucklanders – is not an isolated one. Indeed, my impression is that this is a story about to explode.

I've heard from several people involved with the ATA's work that they're concerned about the lack of accountability in the agency, the apparently unchecked costs of its work and the sweeping mandate accorded to the ATA's head, Mark Ford. The agency has been described to me as "a de facto ministry, with Mark Ford as the Minister."

Where the comparison falls down, of course, is that we elect ministers.

Super city policy is being developed in "workstreams" populated by representatives from existing councils, along with appointees such as Laila Harre, who is part of the human resources workstream.

These workstreams prepare policy position papers for the approval of the ATA board, which then releases each paper as a formal proposal. Councils then have the opportunity to respond to these ATA positions with a formal political council response, as they may not necessarily agree with the position taken by the ATA.

Which sounds consultative. Until you get to the council-controlled organisation, or CCOs, which are being developed under a different – and, as Barnett noted, much less accountable – process.

CCOs will carry out various of the forthcoming Auckland Council's functions. The ATA's current thinking is that there will be seven CCOs, three of which -- Watercare, Transport and the Waterfront Development Agency – will be established under the Local Government (Auckland Law Reform) Bill, the third of the three super-city bills.

(The first bill, the Local Government (Tamaki Makaurau Reorganisation) Bill, established the ATA and put Ford, the CEO of Watercare Services, in charge. It was passed under urgency and could not be debated. The second bill, the Local Government (Auckland Council) Bill was subject to a truncated select committee process, which saw Rodney Hide and John Key announce their decisions on new Auckland boundaries before the committee could even report.)

The accountability of the three key CCOs to the forthcoming, elected Auckland Council is extremely questionable. And this isn't trivial. Watercare will control Auckland’s water resources and set user charges. The Auckland Transport Agency, will have control of Auckland’s transportation contracts.

It's pretty much a given that there will be power struggles between the Auckland Council and these CCOs. But the ATA has particular advantages here: it decides where the assets of current council CCOs go. It can veto the decisions of the councils, including those on spending. And it has a free hand to run up debt in the name of Auckland ratepayers.

There's more: Watercare, Ford’s previous employer, has a fairly extraordinary deal in the third bill. It will not officially become a CCO until mid-2012. Until then it will be largely beyond the reach of the elected council – and it has the power to propose bylaws to the Auckland Council, which, with a few exceptions, must accept them.

In all this, the ATA is accountable to only one Auckland voter – the Minister of Local Government, Rodney Hide. So you'd better be trusting Rodney.

So how much of your money will all this cost? Well, the government allocated the ATA an initial operating budget of $12.5 million – as a loan to be repaid by the Auckland Council after November 1, when it's elected.

The Royal Commission estimated a cost of between $120m and $240m for the whole transition and according to the Department of Internal Affairs, it's more or less on track for that.

One of the big risk areas is in merging the respective councils' IT systems – which looks like taking three to five years, at a cost of about $35 million, for (I’m told) very modest gains in efficiency. Anyone who has worked in this area will know how badly projections can go wrong.

On the upside, the ATA is subject to the Official Information Act. But it may be hard to get a clear view of costs, because much of the spending is intended to come from existing local authority budgets.

Meanwhile, the ATA needs only the approval of Rodney Hide and Bill English to raise debts that the Auckland Council will own henceforth. Potentially, the ATA could raise the $100 million that Murray McCully wants Auckland to spend on his World Cup waterfront project and pass the money to the Waterfront Development Agency, whose directors will be appointed by Rodney Hide on the recommendation of the ATA.

This is why Ford's role, as noted yesterday, in campaigning for the McCully plan for Queen's Wharf, is so troubling. I thought yesterday that Ford must surely be exceeding his brief there, but it appears he may not be – so sweeping are his powers under the original, passed-under-urgency bill.

I did think it was necessary for Auckland to aggregate its governance, and this kind of process is never going to be easy, straightforward, quick or cheap. But if you're not concerned about the means by which this is being done, and the way major financial commitments could be made on our behalf, you're not really paying attention.

It seems the Herald is coming alive to the issues now. I hope and trust we can look forward to some solid and serious reporting from other news media organisations too. This is important.

PS: We will de discussing other sorts of "news" on Media7 this week, particularly the fare of the 7pm current affairs shows as they duke it out for ratings: Robin Brooke gazumping the Prime Minister, boobies on beaches and "hottest politicians" amongst them. I'll be joined by Brian Edwards, Throng's Rachel Cunliffe and Herald on Sunday journalist Matt Nippert. Click reply and let me know if you'd like to join us about 5pm at TVNZ.

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