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Councillor rights to information – Auckland

  • July 18th, 2012

The Herald today has some of my suggestions for upgrading the Auckland Council constitution.  It was in support of Councillor Cathy Casey's complaint at being kept in the dark.

It is also not a complaint about Mayor Brown, or CEO Doug McKay. As far as I know the Mayor has exercised his powers with restraint.


Most  trolls in the early Herald comments display allergy, not understanding.


Here is an intelligent reaction with my comments interposed:


"Good morning Stephen


A really interesting perspective on this morning's Herald, but is the issue really the legislation, or the inability of councillors themselves to exercise the powers they do actually have?


*I rarely blame individuals for faults in the way institutions work, if the fault is widespread and continual. A good example is the RMA, which people keep saying would work if only Councils/planners/judges/developers/neighbours etc applied it the way it should be applied. That is nonsense. The mark of good law is that it takes account of and works with our human foibles, temptations and incentives. The worst laws and cruellest regimes are commonly motivated by high ideals, working on pipe dreams about how humans ought to behave.


The mayor's powers are extensive, but they do not include taking decisions on behalf of the Council. To the extent that the mayor is able to get his way, it because a majority of councillors choose for whatever reason to support his position.


The problem is their information disadvantage. In nearly all human power systems information is power.


The V8 exercise is a classic illustration. If councillors were genuinely disturbed that they did not have the information needed to make an intelligent decision before committing $10 million of ratepayers money, they should have refused to commit the money. There is nothing the mayor could have done about this (or the chief executive, either) except posture a bit.


In the absence of a strong party system that kind of coordinated boycott will not happen, and if it does it connotes a serious breakdown of relationships and potentially the power of the mayor. It would be the equivalent of a vote of no confidence. In al human governance systems they are costly and often declarations of permanent hostilities. They have to be really serious to warrant the cost. I am not against a powerful mayor, and there should be minor disciplinary steps Councillors can take to remedy the information imbalance without firing the big cannon of no confidence.


In addition, in a mayoralty where the mayor appoints committees and their chairs, and controls information flows, there are many incentives for people to decline to oppose openly, even where they are being lead in the dark.


Nor is it anything new that council officers report to the chief executive, not the council. That's been the case for at least 20 years with the provision in the local government act that the chief executive is the sole adviser to the council – it is one of the problems in the local government model generally that there is very little provision for contestability of

advice . Ironically, the Auckland model can be seen as in some respects an improvement because at least the mayor has the resources to obtain independent advice on what comes up through the chief executive – something

which no other council's elected members currently have.


True, but in most Councils where there is a healthy respect between CEO and mayor their resources will combine to keep potential challengers and those who question policy ignorant and ineffective.


One of the ironies of the present local government amendment bill is that it does nothing to address the fundamental issues with governance which actually underlie most of the perceived problems with local government, and which are a direct result of statutory intervention by previous governments most of whom seem not to have understood quite how local government actually works. It's been a standard exercise of focusing on symptoms, rather than causes and will have the usual outcome from such an approach.


You’d need to give me more examples to understand this


I agree that the Auckland decision-making process does look very much like a top-down exercise controlled by the mayor and the chief executive, but that is inherently the fault of councillors failing to exercise control which they collectively have, rather than something inherent in the legislation.


There is a different structural issue which you might like to get your teeth into. This is the position of the local boards, which are supposed to be the repositories of genuine local democracy across the region. The current structural arrangements make realising this aspiration highly unlikely.


Leave aside all the difficulty there has been about deciding what are inherently local non-regulatory activities properly the subject of decision by local boards. Consider instead how local boards are supported, especially in respect of issues where one or both of two situations apply – a local board has a genuine and substantive difference of interest with the governing body which it wants to contest as far as it can and/or there is an issue of common interest across a number or all of the local boards which would be best advanced collectively.


All of the advisory and support staff for local boards are employed by and accountable to the chief executive of the governing body. It's an untenable situation in which to place advisory staff in the event of any potential conflict or difference of interest between the governing body and one or more local boards. You need look no further than the experience of a number of scrutiny officers in English local government – where it has been not uncommon for the scrutiny budget to shrink if the scrutiny officers do their job too well.


I’m not surprised.


 I have long been an advocate that Auckland's local boards need a body the equivalent of London Councils (which provides collective advisory and other services for London boroughs, especially in their dealings with the GLA).

There is no statutory obstacle to this, simply a combination of unwillingness on the part of the Council (which is aware of the possibility) and I suspect largely ignorance on the part of local boards.


The Maori Statutory Board got the resources for this function.


Addressing this would do more to deal with the missing democratic component than any other initiative I can think of. There is probably also a slight element of do it sooner rather than later, as a future mayor could impose much stronger mayoral control than the present mayor has done – there is real potential within the powers which the Auckland Mayor has to establish strong mayoral led Cabinet government, something which the present mayor chose not to do.


Kind regards

Peter McKinlay

Director – Local Government Centre

Institute of Public Policy – AUT University




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