Address to Waitakere Grey Power Association 21 March 2013
Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen,
Two key words were heard time and time again in the lead up to the Super City –accountability and transparency.
In theory we live in a democracy. What’s that? It’s something many servicemen died fighting for. Literally it means power to the people as was the original concept 2600 years ago. Today, in practice, it often means power to the bureaucrats.
I want you to reflect on the thoughts of two philosophers –one was Irish, one was Greek. In the late eighteenth century Edmund Burke said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Just over two thousand years earlier Plato said “The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”
If you deal with Council on a regular basis there are two key words that you’d better get used to – procrastination and obfuscation. Councils don’t take kindly to criticism. If you dare to put your criticisms on paper or ask searching questions be prepared to experience lengthy delays and answers that are often no more than flannel. You will often be blocked at every turn. The Local Government Act is often used to delay matters rather than speed them up. You will often find Council officers reluctant to give specific replies to specific questions. They are masters of half-truths and well practised in the art of denigration by insinuation.
My first experience in dealing with a Council was in 1972. It was the Glen Eden Borough Council and Janet Clews was its Deputy Mayor. My next door neighbour in Tahi Terrace and I, fought for seven years to get a footpath. Then in 1979 when I was teaching at Kelston Boys High School and Janet’s husband Ernie was Chairman of the School Board, at a “meet the Board” function, Mrs Clews came over to me and said “I’ve got good news for you Mr Osborne. Our $5m loan has come through and we’re putting in a footpath in Tahi Terrace and stormwater drains and we’re resealing the road.” “That’s great,” I said. “Now I’ve got good news for you Mrs Clews, I’m leaving on Friday.” And so it was I moved to Te Atatu South.
It was not until 2002 that I started again taking a keen interest in Council matters. Waitakere City Council was proposing a new Civic Centre at an estimated cost of $25m. I, and many others signed John Riddell’s petition against it on the grounds that the existing site was quite suitable for expansion and had adequate parking. There’s only one problem with petitions. They may have 1000 signatures but it only counts as one submission. About the same time Waitakere City Council started coming down heavy-handedly on swimming pool owners with its particular interpretation of the Fencing of Swimming Pools Act. A declaratory judgment was sought by WCC in 2003. In 2004 the council lost its case and $20,000 was awarded to POAG – the Pool Owners Action Group. It’s perhaps an ironic twist that today I am serving on AC’s policy committee for swimming pool fencing.
Swimming pool fencing also woke me up to the way democracy functions in a Council environment. In 2003, some three weeks before a full Council meeting I applied to speak on “Swimming Pool Fencing”. Three days before the meeting I was denied speaking rights on the grounds that the matter was “sub judice”. The following month I applied to speak on “Stormwater Retention Ponds”. Again, at the eleventh hour, I was turned down on the grounds that the matter could be sub judice. The following month I applied to speak on Democracy, with the added rider “surely that can’t be sub judice.” I was allowed to speak. After the Council’s loss of its declaratory judgment it introduced an exemption regime. At the time Councillor Pat Booth asked how many people would be involved in exemptions and was told “only a handful”. Since then hundreds of exemptions have been granted in Waitakere. It was ironic that monthly reports by the Legal Services Manager that had formerly been written were reduced to verbal reports to the Planning and Regulatory Committee. The Chair of that committee was Vanessa Neeson.
Every time there is a Local Body election the public are accused of apathy. As I’ve got older I’ve been convinced it’s not apathy but cynicism. To give one example, when WCC was drafting its own brothel by-law, there were 128 submissions. 120 submissions opposed the Council’s plan to allow brothels in residential areas, 8 supported it. The Council plan went ahead. Such actions make ratepayers cynical. At the time I asked to address the Planning & Regulatory Committee on the issue. I was declined permission. The Chair of that committee was Vanessa Neeson.
This is an election year. There will be lots of rhetoric, lots of promises,
glowing self appraisals in Western Leader Letters to the Editor.
Prospective Councillors and Local Board members will tell you how they believe in service to the community and want to act as your advocates to the best of their abilities.
One necessary qualification that I believe should be mandatory for all prospective candidates is the ability to read and digest a Profit & Loss Account and a Balance Sheet. How many of the incumbent representatives can claim to be able to do so competently?
The Film Studios is a prime example of what ratepayer money should not be spent on.
In 2008 total assets for AFSL were $15m. By 30/6/12 they had reduced to $8.5m. The Board Report of ACIL in October 2012 showed asset value as at 31/8/12 as $4.8m. Despite this, moves are secretly being made as we speak for a bigger better Film Studio probably around the $50m mark entirely funded by the ratepayers of Auckland. I quote from a report that most Councillors, if not all Councillors, are unaware of. “Public sector organisations generally invest in order to overcome a market failure.” In other words, the private sector has pooh poohed the idea, so let’s use ratepayer money. Councils have no business investing ratepayer money in speculative ventures. They should concentrate on core services as they once did many years ago. The boat building industry is another example of wasted ratepayer funds.
If you attend Local Board meetings you will be amazed at the high percentage of speakers in Public Forum who go along asking for one form of grant or another from ratepayer money. The greatest portion of your rates goes to CCOs. What are CCOs? They are Council Controlled Organisations but the Council has virtually no control over them and they act as autonomous bodies. CCOs control services such as transport and water that were once core services delivered by Councils. Although they take the bulk of your rates their accountability to ratepayers has diminished as time goes on. I believe it is up to effective Councillors and Local Board members to push for far more accountability from these organisations. There has been a trend over many years for bureaucrats to run the Council and the “representatives” to merely act as rubber stampers.
Recently, in September 2011, 109 property owners in Te Atatu South were told parts of their properties were required for road widening. The public consultation on the road widening was a farce. A year later on 1 November 2012 I tabled a number of questions about costs to my Local Board. On 29 November I was told by the Board Chair they were awaiting a reply from Auckland Transport. When I decided to write directly to Auckland Transport I was told they required $1900 before they would provide me with answers. Unbeknown to me AT had already forwarded a letter to the Local Board Chair, Vanessa Neeson, on 4 December saying “We decided the best response to these particular questions is to assure the board that a post-project audit will be carried out and any concerns at that time could be reported with the benefit of hindsight.” No mention was made of this at subsequent Local Board meetings.
Too often our Local Board members complain that they are only part-timers and they lack any power to be effective. What salaries are they paid?
The Henderson-Massey Local Board Chair, Vanessa Neeson, receives $77,500.
The deputy chairman, Assid Corban receives $54,800 plus a $700 communications allowance because he chooses not to use a computer.
Other members receive $38,400 each.
Is this good value for ratepayer money? Unless our representatives are prepared to stand up and be counted and not allow themselves to be fobbed off, and in turn fob off the ratepayers they represent, I don’t believe it is.
I would doubt that there’s a person in this room who is not concerned about rising rates. We have a right to see that rates levied against us are spent wisely. We have a right to ask for details of expenditure but try to get details and you are likely to get shut down. I recently discovered that my emails to elected representatives were being blocked and had been for several months. When I challenged this practice I was told there was no legal requirement for emails sent to a council email address to be delivered unfiltered to that address. After I raised the issue at a full Council meeting on 28 February, the CEO, Doug McKay insisted there had been no blocking or censoring of emails to elected representatives. That same day I received an email at 4.58 pm from Electoral Officer , Bruce Thomas saying “I am advised that the email rule redirecting your emails has been removed. Any future emails will go direct to the addressee.” Then 4 days later I received an email from Bruce Thomas stating there had been no discussion with elected representatives but the decision had come from Doug McKay. On 15 March Mr McKay claimed “There was never an intention to block emails or withhold information from elected members.” The censorship didn’t stop at emails. I applied to speak on “Censorship” at a meeting of the Accountability and Performance committee on 13 March. Initially, permission was declined by the Chairman, Richard Northey but 8 Councillors supported my right to speak. Half way through my speech Mr Northey gave an order for my microphone to be turned off. — So much for free speech! The office of the Minister of Local Government has told me such matters are outside his jurisdiction. Council have called for an investigation by Doug McKay into the censorship and a report back. To me that’s asking a man to be judge and jury at his own trial. It’s against the principles of natural justice.
I urge everyone here to take a very active interest in the affairs of Auckland Council.
Use your votes wisely. Remember the penalty for indifference to public affairs.
It’s time to bring the power back to the people.
For those of you with a computer I have a blog site on Auckland Council. http://www.accountabilitynz.wordpress.com
I would like to put a motion to this meeting “That this branch of Grey Power requests Auckland Council to initiate an independent enquiry into censorship of ratepayer communications.”