In the Department of Internal Affairs’ briefing to the incoming Minister of Local Government, Hon Dr Nick Smith, in December 2011, it stated “Despite a generally strong local government commitment to consultation, people with an interest in their council can sometimes struggle to get clear information about the issues it faces and the potential impact on ratepayers and residents. Even if the issues are clear, individuals and communities can find it hard to influence local authority decisions or hold those bodies to account. Elections are infrequent and are blunt accountability mechanisms. Seeking judicial review is expensive and addresses decision-making processes, rather than the substance of decisions. Providing more direct tools for people to review or influence local authority decisions could be useful, and could build on other measures to improve transparency, accountability and financial management in local government.”
In a previous post on this website entitled “Complaints Service” I detailed a complaint made by me on 20 December 2011, and the response.
On Auckland Council’s website under “Complaints” is the statement “We take your complaints seriously and we use your feedback as an opportunity to learn, and improve our services.” “We will send you an acknowledgement within three working days and have a full response sent to you within ten working days.” Now that all sounds very nice but one of my chief concerns is the difficulty, or is it the deliberation, that Council Officers have, in giving straight answers to straight questions.
By way of illustration, let me recount my 2012 experience:
Having directed some specific questions to Roger Blakely, Chief Planning Officer for Auckland Council, re planning matters relating to the widening of Te Atatu Rd, I was dissatisfied with his non-specific answers.
On 16 January I pressed him for specific answers to the following 3 questions:
- Does it rest comfortably with Auckland Council that its subsidiary AT made no application for a change in designation in the DP, thereby avoiding public consultation?
- When did Auckland Council first become aware of the intention of AT to acquire a large number of properties or parts thereof outside the designations in the District Plan?
- Has AT officially notified Auckland Council of its intention to acquire properties or parts thereof outside the designations in the District Plan?
On 17 January he replied
“Dear Mr Osborne
In response to your further questions of the 9th of January 2012, I must reiterate that the proposal to undertake road corridor improvements along Te Atatu Road, is a project that is the responsibility of Auckland Transport.
Auckland Council does not get involved in the delivery of these projects unless it is required to do so from a consenting point of view. As indicated in my previous email, it is an Auckland Transport decision whether they choose the designation process to acquire land for roading projects. In this instance it is clear that Auckland Transport are using the option of direct negotiation with affected property owners instead of amending the designation.
I have previously answered your planning questions. I do not think there is any value in a response to your last 2 questions in your email, because as I have indicated the delivery of this project is an Auckland Transport matter and Auckland Council would not need or require to be directly informed on the matters that you have raised in those two questions.
Auckland Transport has advised me of the communications process they are undertaking on this project. For your information this is attached. If you have any further enquiries as this is an Auckland Transport project, you should direct them to Auckland Transport.”
Not satisfied I complained to Doug McKay, Chief Executive AC, that day.
On 18 January I rang Yvonne Parlane, PA for Doug McKay to ask for confirmation of receipt of my email from the previous day. I was told she was unavailable.
On 19 January I sent a reminder.
On 23 January, having still heard nothing, I sent another reminder.
At 11am I rang and asked to speak to Yvonne Parlane. After two minutes of canned music, I was told “Darryl” was dealing with it. I asked to speak to Darryl Griffin and was told he was unavailable. I also asked for Yvonne Parlane but once again was told she was unavailable.
At 11.05 am I rang back and spoke to S who told me Yvonne Parlane had told her I was to deal with Darryl Griffin. Darryl Griffin was unavailable. After more canned music, I was asked by S if I would like her to take my details. I agreed.
At 11.10 am I rang and spoke to A. I asked for Roger Blakeley. He was unavailable.
I asked to speak to the Complaints Manager. I was told it was Luke Bailey. After 5 minutes of canned music I was told he was unavailable.
At 11.18 am I sent an email to Darryl Griffin asking for a reply.
At 11.21 am I rang and spoke to A. I asked for Luke Bailey. I was put on canned music for several minutes before I hung up.
At 11.33 am I sent an email complaint to Luke Bailey and asked for a complaint number.
At 11.43 am I rang and spoke to G. I asked to speak to Michael Joseph but after 1 minute of canned music I was informed he was on leave until 27 January. I asked to speak to another liaison officer but after 6 minutes of canned music, was told I would have to leave a message on Michael Joseph’s answer phone. I said that was unacceptable and asked to speak to the Mayor’s PA. After a further 8 minutes of canned music, I was told to send a copy of my email to the Mayor.
At 11.58 am I sent an email to the Mayor.
At 11.59 am I received the Mayor’s pro-forma acknowledgement, which, for those of you who have not received one, states:
“On behalf of Mayor Len Brown, thank you for your email.
The Mayor receives a large volume of correspondence and we will respond to you as soon as possible.”
At 12.30 pm Luke Bailey rang and said as far as Council was concerned they had answered my questions and would not be revisiting the matter. I disagreed, asked him to paraphrase his comments and email them to me and once again asked for a complaint number.
At 2.53 pm Luke Bailey sent me the following email:
“Dear Mr Osborne,
Thank you again for making us aware of your concerns regarding the proposal to undertake road corridor improvements along Te Atatu Road.
Auckland Council has provided all information and assistance possible regarding this project. Dr Roger Blakeley’s letter advised that this is an Auckland Transport project and any further correspondence, or enquiries should be directed to Auckland Transport directly as they are in a position to answer your concerns.
We regret we are unable to provide any further clarity in regards to this matter.
We have forwarded your concerns regarding the handling of your communication to the Office of the Chief Executive.”
At 3.10 pm I rang Luke Bailey as no complaint number was enclosed. He was unavailable so I left a message on his answer phone.
At 4.01 pm, not having heard from Luke Bailey I sent him an email once again requesting a complaint number and pointing out that, despite numerous assertions to the contrary, my 3 specific questions to Roger Blakeley had not been answered.
At 4.03 pm Darryl Griffin emailed me to say “Doug asked me last week to review your issue.” He noted I was not satisfied with Roger Blakeley’s responses but merely said “Roger’s advice is that the delivery of this project is a matter for Auckland Transport.”
At 4.42 pm I received an email from Luke Bailey ignoring the contents of my email sent to him at 4.01 pm and once again refusing to supply a complaint number.
At 5.06 pm I sent an email to Darryl Griffin saying
“I directed 3 questions re planning issues to Roger Blakeley.
They remain unanswered.
I remain dissatisfied.”
On 24 January I received the following email from Darryl Griffin.
“I refer to your email of 17 January indicating your dissatisfaction with the response from Roger Blakeley with regard to the three questions you asked of him. I will respond to each in turn.
(1) Does it rest comfortably with Auckland Council that its subsidiary AT made no application for a change in designation in the DP, thereby avoiding public consultation?
As previously advised the decision whether to designate land or negotiate directly with landowners rests with Auckland Transport. Auckland Council has no opinion on the method chosen.
(2) When did Auckland Council first become aware of the intention of AT to acquire a large number of properties or parts thereof outside the designations in the District Plan?
Staff from Auckland Transport and Auckland Council work with each other around the boundaries of each organisation’s responsibilities. Consequently the Auckland Council organization was likely aware of this issue but it is a matter for Auckland Transport.
(3) Has AT officially notified Auckland Council of its intention to acquire properties or parts thereof outside the designations in the District Plan?
Auckland Transport is not required to notify Auckland Council of its intentions and has not done so.”
On 26 January I received an email from Jane Harrison, Democracy Services, issuing me a complaint number and saying I would receive a response within ten working days.
On 27 January I received an email from Darryl Griffin claiming “I have responded to you dealing with the three specific questions you raised with Dr Roger Blakeley.” He concluded “This completes the response to Customer Reference 9000113941.”
In other words, black is white, that’s the end of the matter, no further discussion.
On 10 February I emailed Mayor Len Brown asking what action had been taken since I had emailed him on 23 January. At 7.30 am I received a pro-forma response identical to the one on 23 January.
On 12 February
I sent emails to my local MP, Tau Henare, my local board chair, Vanessa Neeson and the Mayor(Copy to Minister of Local Government) expressing concern about the complaints system.
My email to the Mayor reads:
- I and many members of the public are concerned about the lack of transparency in Auckland Council’s complaints system.
- I have been told a directive has been issued to call centre staff on how to handle any incoming calls from me.
- Under LGOIMA could you please provide me with full details of that directive or any relevant correspondence regarding contact with any particular Council officers.”
On 15 February I received the following email from Darryl Griffin.
I have caught up on the trail of emails between you and the Mayor’s office late today.
Your complaints have been referred to me.
Answering the second and third questions that you ask first. I advise that Doug McKay has asked me to work through issues that you raise and to assist where I can. As far as I know you are the only person who has been assigned a senior manager to help with specific issues that you may have. There is no email trail to that effect but I have my instructions from the Chief Executive and I am implementing them. The call centre will be requested to refer your enquiries to me. I will do my best to be available to talk to you or to answer emails as quickly as possible.
I note your concern about lack of transparency of the complaints system at Auckland Council. The complaints system is an electronic tool that assists keep a register of complaints and a record of their management. In my opinion the tool works well in that Auckland Council management have some certainty of a process and tracking system to manage customer complaints. The system contains a lot of information and much of it is private. In my opinion transparency is not a major goal.
It may well be time for us to arrange a catch up again Gary. If that will be of value to you please advise me and we can discuss a mutually acceptable time.
With respect to your request this afternoon for advice of action taken over the last three days I advise that the Mayor’s office referred your inquiry to me. I am aware that you have had discussions today with Michael Joseph but I have not had a discussion with Michael about those discussions at this time. I have not logged the inquiry as a LGOIMA request as I consider I can answer the questions you have asked immediately. Your email implies a lack of expediency in responding to your request and I apologise I have not been able to address this matter until this evening.”
With the lead up to the Super City we heard much rhetoric about accountability and transparency. Naturally, if any complaints I address to the Mayor or the Chief Executive are delegated to a senior bureaucrat who does not consider transparency of high importance and makes a decision whether or not to process a LGOIMA request as a LGOIMA request, it is hard for me to have faith in the comments advertised on Council’s website regarding complaints as mentioned in Paragraph 3 of this post.