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.