Manukau Courier

Auckland Council and transparen­cy tests

- ToddNiall todd.niall@stuff.co.nz

Stuff’s ‘‘Things we didn’t learn this week’’ campaign intends to shine a light on the daily reluctance of many important public bodies to answer questions.

I have felt guilty not being able to contribute since it began, from my daily dealingswi­th Auckland Council, and its agencies. There is a good reason, but one that many won’t believe.

From my own experience, Auckland is served by local body organisati­ons that are prepared to be open, not always immediatel­y, but mostly eventually.

Openness is a culture, and largely driven from the top, and the variations in my experience­s with Auckland Council and its agencies have largely reflected that.

The council was formed in 2010, amalgamati­ng eight local bodies, and its mood reflected a public expectatio­n that so much would be better.

Openness also reflects confidence, and in inaugural chief executive officer Doug McKay and mayor Len Brown therewas a transparen­cy that generally cascaded through to lower levels.

The initial outlier was Auckland Transport, chaired by the late Mark Ford, who had led the amalgamati­on process, and the inaugural chief executive officer David Warburton. Both took too literally the legislativ­e design of the Council-controlled organisati­ons (CCOS) as semiautono­mous companies, with boards, indirect control by politician­s, and limited public accountabi­lity.

I, and representa­tives of other stakeholde­r groups, spent years trying to get AT to publish even the contents page of the confidenti­al parts of its agendas – a change that really only occurred under the second chair, Lester Levy.

Political style and leadership conditions the readiness of the agencies to be open. My monthly chats with the council’s second chief executive officer – Stephen Town – were suspended for a while after the arrival of Phil Goff as mayor in 2016.

Goff’s early public criticism of some CCOs, and a habit of releasing letters laying down the law to the chief executive or a board chair, created awariness about being open.

My worst experience­s with the council occurred early in Goff’s first term – both were around a reluctance to release reports commission­ed by the mayor.

In July 2018, chief ombudsman Peter Boshier directed the council to apologise to this journalist and my then-employer over the five-month delay, and the circumstan­ces surroundin­g the release of a study on the vehicle import trade and whether Auckland’s economy would be betterwith­out it. It wouldn’t, said the report. The findings included thatwhile Goffwas not involved, his principal adviser took part in discussion over the report’s release.

‘‘Therewas an undesirabl­e lack of clarity concerning their role in the process,’’ wrote Boshier.

The ombudsman also had to overrule the council’s 2017 decision not to release a copy of another Goff-commission­ed report, an inconclusi­ve $1 million exercise on the viability of a downtown stadium.

Aside from those early Goffera glitches, my experience has been of a council which generally responds promptly to requests and makes senior and specialist staff available for interviews, or briefings.

Auckland Transport’s occasional lapses have largely been due to repeated organisati­onal failure, rather than intention to withhold, such as the 16 months taken to release what was clearly not the report asked for.

Things are not always perfect, and the slow-moving official informatio­n process for more complex queries is frustratin­g, but compared to many central government ministries and institutio­ns, Aucklander­s can have some confidence in ‘‘ask, and it shall be answered’’.

My dealings with police and some big ministries like health, though, that is another story.

 ?? ?? Auckland Council inaugural chief executive officer Doug McKay, left, and thenmayor Len Brown in 2010 at the merged body’s first meeting.
Auckland Council inaugural chief executive officer Doug McKay, left, and thenmayor Len Brown in 2010 at the merged body’s first meeting.
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