Franks – Auckland Council is a dictatorship

NZ Herald

Stephen Franks has a column in the NZ Herald about the elected dictatorship that exists at the Auckland Council:

The Auditor-General is unlikely to fix Auckland Council member Cathy Casey’s complaint that the council was kept in the dark on the V8 race subsidy. The law setting up the Super City deliberately created a presidential mayoralty and gave councillors no clear rights to information.

It certainly does not protect council officers who want to provide unbiased information to councillors against the wishes of their bosses, the chief executive and the mayor.

The law may have been drafted out of frustration with years of indecision fuelled by endless reporting and consultation as excuses for inaction. Perhaps the law’s designers chose to give elected dictatorship a go instead.

There is building anger with what Len Brown is up to, his latest stunt over the rail loop funding is now causing genuine anger.

Amazingly till now there has been little publicised protest at the constitutional barbarity of this structure. Without clear rights to the same information available to the executive they must monitor, councillors become spare wheels.

“Carping critics” who are also unavoidably ignorant are in no position to maintain the safeguards of democratic control.

Some have called the Auckland governance structure the corporate model. If so it is a poor copy. The company model is robust about directors’ rights to oversee management. Directors have an almost unrestricted right to information from anywhere in the company. Even conflicts of interest create only a partial exception.

Conflicts of Interest is interesting considering all the Brown hacks rewarded with cushy directorhips under Brown.

The Auckland mayor holds central power in a hybrid Westminster/presidential system without separation of powers. Unlike all other mayors in New Zealand he is not first among equals. He is the boss.

Auckland Council workers report to his chief executive (not the council) and some have been told their duty is to implement the mayor’s vision.

Even if his vision is cock-eyed and myopic with some serious astigmatism? One good thing though is if he is the boss then the buck stops with him.

All that may be a useful reform, but it is not obvious where representative democracy fits in. There is plenty of consultation, the lip service version of democracy that is drowning councils and ratepayers across New Zealand in empty process but doing nothing to entitle councillors to timely answers to their queries.

Worse, there is no equivalent to central government’s State Services Commission code for state servants, or the parliamentary conventions that oblige officials to provide honest and impartial advice to MPs in a select committee, and protect them from senior wrath when they give it.

Current law requires councils to have a code of conduct for councillors. It should be extended to officers.

The current boards, despite Brown’s promise they would be relevant are nothing but lip gloss on lip service. Witness the mess at Manurewa when Brown countermanded the wishes of the community. The council officers and Len Brown are running amok…proper constitutional and governance reform is needed.

Auckland badly needs a constitutional upgrade. Version 2 should enshrine the right of councillors to information. It should protect and constrain council employees along the lines of the State Services Commission code that guides public servants and protects the impartiality of their service.

Auckland Constitution 2 should also require council consultants to certify their work to councillors. They are now a vital part of local government quality control.

With intense competition and Auckland being the major employer of many consultants, the temptation is too great for consultants to tell council officers (who control where the next contract goes) what they want to hear.

Share prospectus law deals with similar pressure. Expert names are used to persuade people to invest. So they must certify references to their work. That would deal with a problem my firm has seen recently in helping Auckland clients, where low-quality professional reports were described to councillors (and in public documents) as if they said more than they did, and leaving out the weasel exclusions in the actual reports.

Consultant reputations would be better protected against misuse if the consultants had to certify that “summaries, references and extracts of their reports are fair, balanced and properly informative for their intended purposes in the form and context in which they appear” and if they were liable for false or reckless certification, as company directors are.

Such constitutional upgrades could be in the Government’s announced local government reform bills.

Sensible stuff from Stephen Franks, why isn’t he on some government boards that could do with his clear intellectualism and frank speaking.

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