Citizen involvement in the New Auckland

With postal voting for the new Auckland Council now less than eight months away, it seems that local boards will have some clout as they seek to represent the will of the people

Gaps remain in the new Auckland city structure, as do questions about just how much influence citizens will have over decisions that will affect their daily lives, but the importance of local boards is becoming increasingly clear.

The long-awaited Auckland Law Reform Bill was released just prior to Christmas, and at first appearance it seemed a nightmare to navigate with its many references and proposed changes to the first two Auckland acts – together with references to a wide array of other legislation governing and/or affecting local government generally.

Strangely, however, working through this convoluted Auckland Law Reform Bill, reveals that there are significant rules being laid down which should give the average citizen comfort that, for example, the operations of the non-elected council controlled organisations [CCOs], will be subjected to policy direction by the elected Auckland Council, and monitoring by both the council and its associated local boards.

Further re-assurance should also be taken by the requirement that relevant CCOshave direct relationships with local boards on local issues, and from the boards being required to work together – thus giving them the potential to create a powerful lobby group on behalf of citizens who might find it otherwise impossible to affect Auckland Council decision-making.

What's become clear from the bill is that, while the Government has, via the Auckland Transition Agency (ATA), determined the structure of the New Auckland, it is leaving precise role definition to the elected members of the Auckland Council – after the initial definitions and delegations be set by the ATA for the initial term of the council.

The ATA has acknowledged the challenge, and is aware of concerns about the powers of local boards, and now promises consultation via a draft paper in early March. This is a good sign.

All this of course depends on the goodwill of all those involved – the government, agency, current council’s and community boards – plus the various lobby groups such as the EMA and Chamber of Commerce, and the participation of voluntary organisations and pressure groups such as GreyPower.

In essence, there is an acceptance by the majority that Auckland needed a change to its governance structure – not simply to make us a ‘world-class’ city or an ‘economic powerhouse’, but to bring about a truly democratic form of local government that encourages and ensures greater efficiency and accountability in its operations, at least cost, such cost being that which citizens can afford.

In the New Auckland, the bulk of that citizen participation is almost entirely through the local boards.

The latest draft legislation, the Local Government (Auckland Law Reform) Bill, together with amendments to the first two Auckland governance acts, makes it clear that these new local boards are part of the Auckland council – as compared to existing community boards, which are not part of their respective councils.

This makes the relationship between the boards and the council's governing body of extreme importance – as is the relationship between neighbouring boards.

The reform bill also allows delegations from the new Auckland Transport Agency to the council and to local boards. This will satisfy those who feared that decisions about purely local traffic issues would be taken far away from local communities.

Overall there may be distrust arising from the absence of clear delegation to local boards actually being written into the legislation – so the ATA has a real duty to honour the intent of the legislation to delegate to the boards all non-regulatory powers that do not require control on a region-wide basis.

With the new Auckland council required to be up and running in little more than ten months, much remains to be done – not least the need for as much information as possible to be given to the public so that all citizens are in a position to assess those candidates who seeks election as mayor, councillor and/or board member – all of whom should need to demonstrate that they are equipped, and able, to the job their office will demand.

Media attention over the months between now and the election will largely focus on the mayoral race – plus, I suspect, a growing interest in elections for the twenty councillors if it becomes obvious that control of the council is being fought between Labour and National, thinly disguised in some form of ‘local’ uniform.

The board elections may arouse interest only in the local suburban newspapers, yet these board members will be the key representatives for those dozens of local communities which abound across greater Auckland.

The citizens’ ability to influence local governance – including the never-ending rates battle – will lie largely with his or her board. And the local board, as an arm of the Auckland council, will need to have the strength to pursue its resident interests with the all-powerful governing body of the council. (Although the boards will be helped in their task by a disputes resolution process being introduced in the bill.)

Electing a local board member will be a much more important decision than the present election of community board members. They will have considerable clout in the new Auckland – they will need to use it wisely if the new system is to succeed.

The new Auckland will fail if it cannot quickly achieve the support of its citizens – and an early indication of failure of this hastily introduced reform could prove a telling factor in the 2011 general election.