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How to hold Len Brown's feet to the fire


Earlier this week, New Zealand Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan made some stern criticisms of the lack of scrutiny of the Auckland Mayor's Office. The piece was a timely reminder of the additional powers granted to the mayor of Auckland.

Although some of the additional powers enjoyed by the Auckland mayor have since been passed on to New Zealand's other 55 mayors, such as being able to appoint a deputy mayor and committee chairs, only the Auckland mayor has a staffed office. The supercity legislation requires this office to have a budget of not less than 0.2% of the budgeted operating expenditure of the Council. This resulted from the royal commission’s recommendation, based on the broader powers enjoyed by foreign mayors.

However, despite these new executive powers, no additional tools have been granted for councillors to hold the mayor to account. In Parliament, mnisters are accountable to the House. Failed New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner proposed adopting a Mayoral Question Time, modelled on the British House of Common's Prime Minister's Questions but nothing similar exists in New Zealand - despite Wellington City Mayoral candidate Jack Yan making a similar proposal.

O'Sullivan's piece was not the first time the functions of the Office of the Mayor have received criticism though, with the number of spin doctors employed being derided by media back in February. In August, I questioned whether press releases from Len Brown's office were in conflict with the Auditor-General's guidelines on ratepayer-funded communications in the pre-election period.

The fallout following Len Brown’s admission of an affair has seen additional scrutiny of the mayor’s activities. There is, however, the potential for some reformation following three years of operation under the new model. While research undertaken by the Office of the Auditor-General indicates the current arrangements are functioning well in an operations sense, other elected members to the council would feel disgruntled by the lack of tools available to question Brown’s activities. They, of course, can use the media, which also has a role to play in its function as the Fourth Estate, to air their concerns. The council’s de facto leader of the opposition, Cameron Brewer, did just so, calling for the Ernst & Young review to investigate a non-declared trip to Hong Kong by Brown.

In contrast, Toronto mayor Rob Ford has been raked over the coals by his city councillors, who voted to transfer powers and his budget his the deputy mayor. Such steps would be excessive here, as the actions by Messrs Ford and Brown are not exactly comparable. The Toronto councillors' powers are somewhat at the other end of the scale but highlight steps taken overseas to curb wide reaching mayoral powers. The other notable difference is that the criticism more recently has been of the Auckland Mayor's Office and the lack of scrutiny applicable to it; in Canada, it has been of Ford as the mayor. There is some accountability being applied in Auckland, as the council chief executive has responsibilities in ensuring everything is above board, as seen in the instigation of the review of Brown’s activities.

The Office of the Auditor-General has noted that conventions are being developed around the powers and functions of the Office of the Mayor of Auckland. But to what extent are the Office of the Mayor’s staff analogous to those employed in ministerial offices and are they expected to be politically neutral? Communications remains an unresolved issue too, with previous instances of various divisions of the Auckland Council, including the Mayor’s Office, issuing similar press releases.

Ideally, as time moves on, conventions will be created for the use of power. We may even see the council internally resolve to provide new checks and balances on the mayor’s executive powers. A mayoral question time wouldn’t go amiss however, particuarly if it leads to further discussion around the use of executive power in local government and the development of conventions.

Hamish McConnochie is a Wellington writer.

Comments and questions

Very timely article.

I Think Central Government should operate like Auckland council. Vote for a President (not party) and vote in the commitee members and from those committee members the president has to choose his ministers.

That is close to how Labour operates, with it selected Cabinet.

Actually, that's closer to how National selects its Cabinet.

Ministers in a Labour government are elected by Cabinet, hence why in the Fourth Labour Government, Lange was stuck with Douglas in Cabinet, as caucus voted to reinstate him.

In National, the Prime Minister selects his Ministers.

Of course, there are other factors at play too - i.e. the PM needs to enjoy the support of the majority of his or her caucus to remain leader, so needs to ensure his or her selections appease a wide enough cross section otherwise disgruntled MPs may challenge.

Holding Len Brown's feet to the fire.......Number1 on Whale FM.

Link? Can't seem to find this.

...find it 8 down in 'yesterdays posts'....absolute classic!

This raises two issues. First, the mayor should be elected by councillors, not at large. Councillors know who is competent, but the vast majority of the voting public haven't the faintest idea, and vote for the candidate with the greatest sex appeal, the one with the best PR team, or one of the first names on an alpha order voting form.

Second, if the mayor can operate like this with a support team, then so should councillors. Brisbane City Council has successfully operated a mini parliamentary system for 88 years, with fully staffed electorate offices, which enables the councillor to fulfil an advocacy role for constituents. This is far better than toothless local boards who chew money, but are effectively useless.

Other regions of NZ should beware of the flawed Auckland model.

A very perceptive piece Hamish, particularly from the perch of the Marshmallow Capital.
The problem we have in Auckland is there is no clear leader of the opposition to Brown and the Spinners. You call Brewer the de facto leader. More the default one, because he isn't a leader. He's a backroom boy. A tactician. Never really upfront and leading with the chin.
Christine Fletcher could be that, but she's not bothered.
Brewer snipes and runs. He doesn't adopt issues, like the overcharging on water, the noisy aircraft bothering North Shore, the Eastern Suburbs and beyond, the waste in Council or indeed the ridiculous salary bill. He'd rather take a shot and duck. A loner, not a leader. Media mileage is more important to his ego than delivering to his constituents.
I hear good things about the new man for Takapuna.
A real leader, not a de facto. default one is desperately required to rid us of this meddlesome mayor and his spin doctors.

Actually, a shameless two-faced duplicitous pathological hypocrite should be chucked straight in.