Six months into the job, I thought that it’s a good time to give you an update on how life is going as a Local Board Member. Truth is, unless you’ve seen our Local Boards in action, you probably don’t know much about what the Local Board does or how they do it. Judging by the lack of voter turn out, that is probably the truth for the majority.
I decided to stand for election towards the end of July last year. A few people that I had been working alongside in my previous role, and others in the community had given me a few prods and for the first time I started to seriously consider it. There were lots of reasons why I didn’t want to do it. I was worried that I’d cop abuse about decision making by people who don’t actually understand the issues or the processes taken to come to a decision, I was worried about the demand on my family (two working parents and 3 young children is not a recipe for stress-free living, especially when there’re a lot of community meetings taking place when the bedtime routine is in full swing), I was also worried that I wouldn’t get in! (Ego at play?). But then the more I looked at the system, and the lack of diversity on the Board and how I genuinely felt that no one represented my interests (or to be honest, the interests of my children, of all children; the ones who will be most impacted by decisions made today) I started to really think, if not me, then who?
The truth is, there are a lot of barriers to standing for election. One might argue it’s only a $200 deposit to throw your hat in the ring, but it’s a lot more than that. If you hope to stand a chance, you need a lot of people behind you – so you need to be reasonably well known. You need to have a name that is synonymous with community action, as that’s what people will remember you for. You need to be in a position to accept a part-time job with no real set hours (so if you already hold a demanding job, this might be a challenge), you also need to bank roll a marketing campaign and be prepared to stand up in front of a heckling crowd. I doubt this criteria is adequate in enticing many to stand, and as a result we often get the same people in the role each year, as voter apathy tends to defer to choosing whoever’s in the role already. In some places around the country the position can go uncontested, as no one wants the job!
It’s because of all these reasons I would argue we have never seen a genuinely representative board since the Local Board model was introduced 10 years ago. A great article was published on Stuff that noted there were more Councillor’s named John than there are Councillors born after 1980.
So what is the role of any Board? It’s governance. Governance is direction setting and decision making. It’s not the doing. Every one of the 21 Local Boards adopts a Local Board Plan for their 3 year term which is a high-level document that sets direction for how we spend rate-payer money for the benefit of the community. Auckland Council has so many smart, passionate and skilled employees who present at our workshops material and information that support us to set direction and make the right decisions. We ask many questions to get a full understanding and what we learn, coupled with our own research and investigation, and speaking and working alongside community groups, we're able to make decisions in the monthly business meetings. In theory it should work to good effect and our decisions should illustrate that we understand the needs and wants of our community.
Local Boards should be working hard to get great outcomes for the area they represent and this is what I am absolutely focused on, as previously we saw a lot of opposition to change (this being one of the reasons why I stood). When budgets are tight (and even more so in a post-COVID future) we need to be innovative leaders who can forge quality relationships and find creative solutions to getting things done. In our Governance role when we set direction, we should back it and when good opportunities are presented to us, we should seize them.
Every year we adopt a Local Board Agreement that sets out the work programme for the next financial year. The work programme is massive and outlines where money is going. It includes things like playground and toilet renewals, operational grants to our galleries and theatres, funding for environmental and pest control programmes, community leases of council buildings, funding for maintenance of our public spaces and reserves, contestable grants to support community groups achieve more, funding for the Business Improvement Districts to deliver activations that support the local economy, and funding for our Leisure Centre and our Libraries. This isn’t even the half of what the DTLB fund; our rates are being spent to meet all the needs of our citizens the best it can. If there’re any significant and new projects that we need additional funding for then we can lobby the Governing Body to unlock those funds, or work alongside Auckland Transport, Panuku, Healthy Waters or other CCO.
Reflecting on the role, six months in, I still think there are serious barriers to getting good things done in our community and a lot has to do with stalling; stalling because issues get thrown around like political hotcakes, stalling because elected members focus on petty politics and forget what they've been elected to do, stalling because sometimes the minority of loud angry voices are the only thing we hear. I’ve deduced that this can all be remedied by greater community engagement, and a bit more faith by the naysayers. We don’t live in a world where the best possible outcome is always possible; or where money is unlimited. We have to balance the needs of the community with the strong opposition to paying rates. We can’t have it both ways. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of “city planners” that seem to lack the qualifications or the experience in city planning but enjoy sitting behind their keyboards criticizing Council. I’ve received emails from all sorts of people and witnessed on social media frenzied conversation threads slamming council. Council isn’t some ‘faceless organisation’ it’s a massive organization that employs some of the most skilled amongst us to see that the city operates as well as it can. It will never be perfect, because a decision that is good for some, may not be good for others, but on the whole, it does very well.
What I would like to see are more people who typically aren’t the ‘squeaky wheels’ start to find their voice. Those of you out there who have an opinion, but don’t find the time to express it. Those of you out there who care about the need to redesign our city for the benefit of the next generation, and generations to come. You’re the ones who can tip the balance in favour of progress, mindful, sustainable, innovative progress, even if your opinion is ‘great work, keep it up’ put it out there. Get it out there. Because if not you, then who?
Elected member of the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board for the 2019-2022 Election Term.