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Super City ambitions stuck in a carpark

If anyone ever wondered if the Super City reform of Auckland local government has delivered clear decision-making, look no further than the little piece of land that is the carpark at 19 Anzac Rd, Browns Bay.

It has 58 carparks, mostly used by customers and staff of the New World supermarket. It is, in the context of the North Shore, let alone the whole Auckland region, a limited little car park of no particular consequence.

But it has consumed the governance of the Super City, the amalgamated city formed from eight local authorities in 2010 to deal with the big picture and the demands of a world city.

It is a symbol, perhaps of the 'governance' issues which Auckland's mayor and 20 councillors, and its many local boards are struggling with, seven years on.

The Browns Bay patch of land is one identified by Auckland Transport, a Super City subsidiary company, as surplus to its, and the council's, ownership. The Council had asked the transport company and other entities to come up with land valued at $60 million region wide that it could sell to help fund other pressing council spending priorities.

But the Hibiscus and Bays Local Board has opposed the disposal. Auckland Transport did not consult it properly. And it has bounced back and forth around the Auckland Council's committees as they try to work out who can do what, when, with the land.

At this week's Finance and Performance Committee, the 19 Anzac Rd carpark stymied Auckland councillors for the second time. Should they consult again before agreeing to dispose of this piece of land? Was it the responsibility of the committee of the Council, or the local board, to decide such thoroughly mundane matters? If they sold a carpark how did that play into the city strategy of promoting public transport, park-and-rides, environmentally sustainable transport for the future? But, on the other hand, what would happen on popular days at the Browns Bay beach when carparking was at a premium? And if this carpark was mainly used by New World supermarket customers, shouldn't that company have to buy it to support its private use?

The debate went on and on. The Mayor, Phil Goff, was at this committee. So were 15 councillors of the 20. They all seem listed on this committee, as on others. It is a situation so unlike Parliamentary select committees, where a small and supposedly representative numbers of MPs do the leg work before reporting back to the whole House. Here, everyone seems to want to keep control over every little decision. So everyone is a member of everything, almost, and presumably they all get paid for their time taking time, lots of time, over menial issues of local government.

One of Auckland's local body luminaries, councillor Mike Lee, couldn't bear the indecisive parody of local governing. "In their worst dreams, the honourable architects of the Super City did not envisage the Governing Body and the senior executives of the Council would be sitting around and discussing the disposal of one carpark in Browns Bay. That is properly the business of a local board. This is not leadership and it is not acting as a Super City."

The former deputy mayor, Penny Hulse, found herself "in total agreement with Councillor Lee". Her concern was the main body of the council was going to send the issue back to a local board and then have to deal with it a THIRD time, when in truth it was not going to accept whatever feedback that local board provided. "Why are we going around the loop again?"

Former National Party MP Tau Henare, who is a representative of the Independent Māori Statutory Board tweeted from the council meeting room: "Spending an inordinate amount of time on the #sale of a #carpark. FFS. Get over yaselves.@IMSB11."

Another councillor, Chris Darby, said the issue was before councillors at the finance committee because it involved a disposal of assets.  

Mike, Penny and Tau weren't the only ones unable to see Super in this discussion.

It was excruciating. But it was a microcosm of what seems to have befallen Auckland.

The 2010 change merged all the local bodies into one council and set up local boards, but simultaneously allowed the council to hold all the real decision-making and left the local boards with a few piecemeal funds to allocate - and to be advocates for how the other spending should be done.

The Council has recognised how dysfunctional the split between grand strategy for the Governing Body and specific actions at the Local Board level has become. It has formed a "Governance Framework Review" - a joint group of councillors and local board types - to report to the top body by August 24.  

That review has already ditched the idea of cutting the number of local boards (now 21) but is trying to work out the "appropriate level" of decision making, role clarity between the "two arms of governance", "provision for increased empowerment of local boards especially in their place-shaping role" and so on.

At the moment just $350 million worth of rates are allocated to local boards, but even then they have the full discretion over less than 10 percent of that figure. The Governing Body does the real thinking.

An option for the review is whether local boards should have full decision-making for funding of local services and assets, with them setting a local rate and with full ratepayer accountability. Another is to allow local financial decision-making "within regional policy and financial parameters".

And a third is to keep the status quo - piecemeal funding decisions but the ward councillors and their colleagues in the Governing Body doing the heavy lifting.

What became clear at the finance commitee was the local boards have different approaches. In Browns Bay, the board opposes the little car park being sold off. But in Henderson the local board has lined up buildings and carparks valued at $26 million for the big brother council to sell off.  

In the meantime, the 19 Anzac Rd carpark will be consulted on again. The finance committee's decision was that it "requested consultation take place with the Hibiscus & Bays Local Board regarding disposal of the carpark at 19 Anzac Road, Browns Bay". 

And real local decision-making will wait for the day Auckland councillors are willing to give up the specifics, the detail and the committee memberships and devolve the minor, local governing of the city to those who are closest to it.

It appears that while local boards are eager to thrash out issues of the council’s complicated structure, councillors need a hurry-up to come to the table.

An update on progress on the review was released at this morning’s Governing Body committee meeting. A political working party of seven of the city’s local board chairs and seven members of the Governing Body committee, set up in February, has been meeting to look at the issue. But enthusiasm for the task is clearly in favour of local board members.

Councillor Richard Hills said while the debate had been “pretty balanced”, it would be good to see more of the appointed councillors turning up, especially when “the chairs are coming from all over to meet us”. 

Mayor Phil Goff reminded members the meetings were important; “If you are a member of the working group, please make the effort to get there.”

Today's meeting was delayed for five minutes while waiting for enough councillors to make a quorum. 

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