In this week’s Local Board Business Meeting the new Chair submitted a Notice of Motion to open the Local Board workshops. Three of us voted against this motion, three voted for. It was passed using the casting vote of the Chair. It’s a big decision for a Board to open their workshops and so it’s worth learning about why I didn’t want to see it happen.
The Local Board comes together every Tuesday for workshops. Every third Tuesday of the month we hold an open business meeting where decisions are made. The other 3 Tuesdays are set aside for various departments of Council or the CCOs such as Auckland Transport (AT) or Eke Panuku or Auckland Unlimited to come and present to us items of importance to our Local Board area. Community Groups too can come to us during this time to workshop any issues or concerns they may have.
Workshops are a tool for elected members to gain valuable insights and information on issues or projects happening in the area. We’re able to ask as many questions as we like and thrash out ideas on how to get the best outcomes for all. There is a free flow of information and this is important in supporting us to make good decisions when the Business Meeting comes around.
When I was the Business Improvement District Manager in Devonport I would come to workshops to discuss things happening in the town centre. Whilst my formal presentation was available to the public, as all workshop material is, it was the verbal exchange that was recorded by the sitting media who went straight to print with a story that I hadn’t expected, I hadn’t been interviewed for, and on content that hadn’t even been confirmed or decided upon. It had been a free and frank conversation that suddenly hit the headlines, because let’s face it, it’s always a slow news day in Devonport.
I was aggrieved, and it meant that I was unlikely to answer future questions in a workshop, or present the full picture, instead only focusing on the rosy news-worthy stories rather than engaging in a constructive conversation. This is a massive problem, because I know that I have not been the only person blind-sided by this ‘openness and transparency’ issue before. I told myself that if I was elected, I would close those workshops once again, and that’s what Aidan, George and I did. Aidan got some grief for this, particularly by the local media who had just had the free content tap turned off. You can see the satirical cartoon they did on Aidan above to get a gauge on their reaction. But for Aidan and me both, this gig is not a life-style choice. We don’t plan on being in this role a long time; all we ever cared about is doing a bloody good job for the community in the time that we are here. We need information to do that, and we don’t care about getting off-side with the noisy few in order to get that information.
The Devonport-Takapuna Local Board workshops were opened for the first time in 2013. Aidan Bennett, George Wood and I closed them again in 2019. Today there are only 3 of 21 Local Boards that have open workshops, and in no other case is there a local media sitting in the room writing down everything they hear.
There is a process, and the process is a democratic one. You elect your members. Those members do the work, learn what needs to be learned, set a direction and then we go out for consultation. This is the point where the public get involved. The public can attend a meeting and make a deputation, or speak in public forum. We host Community Meetings where anyone can ask to attend and speak to anything they are passionate about. There are online ‘have your say’ opportunities for renewals and policy changes. When that feedback is gathered, we then workshop the topic again, before taking it to an open meeting to make a decision.
But what will happen now, is we will stop seeing the officers. Hui with mana whenua will be less likely to take place. Having a journalist in attendance at every workshop and meeting is unnatural and compromises relationships. George Wood made a very good comment in relation to this Notice of Motion around our need to work constructively with Auckland Transport to get the Lake Road improvement back on track. If Auckland Transport come to workshop to discuss options, and the local paper goes to print on those options before they’re even refined, resulting in a tirade of rage directed at Auckland Transport (we’ve all seen the bullying that goes on FB) Auckland Transport are unlikely to bring us on the journey. We will have no influence on the end result. That's a loss to our community.
I also believe strongly that as elected members we need to do everything in our power to safeguard the wellbeing of Council staff. There has been a recent wellbeing review released that acknowledges the level of bullying Council Staff get from both elected members and members of the public. Very sadly two of our Council staff committed suicide before Christmas. One of them I knew. I once worked for her incredible father. She was my age and she was under pressure from the public and members because she was working on Auckland’s weed policy and the use of agrichemicals – a contentious topic to say the least. For her it got so bad she did what she needed to do to get some peace. It's a tragic story, and yet, it's not a story, it's a sad, sad truth. Why would I subject other Council Staff to a workshop where the angry mobs can come in and harass them? Why would they want to come in and work with us when we’re not protecting them? It’s negligence on our part if we think that’s okay.
My other issue is that it’s not ‘openness and transparent’ when the only people who do attend are the older set with time on their hands. Not one person in my own demographic attends workshops. Not one person from a minority culture attends workshops. Instead we get the same group (we know them all by name!) who come in every week, make tutting noises, interject, and distract. Once, before I was elected, I attended a workshop I was presenting at, and observed some of these people walking around the Council table handing out pieces of paper to various Board members whilst the meeting was in action. I couldn’t believe it. Workshops turn into a circus of bad behaviour. It's shambolic. But the new Chair and two other members campaigned together on this issue, so it was no surprise when the Notice of Motion was placed upon the agenda in their first Business Meeting.
I believe it’s a decision made to publicly look good, appease their noisy mates and feel like they're fighting for democracy. To me, that’s simply not good enough because the damage to the process is far greater than the accolades gained by looking like the good guys.
Now we can just watch and observe as our workshop content dries up and the opportunities we have to do good things for our community dry up with it. Workshops may be open, but Local Board business will start to close.
Elected member of the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board for the 2019-2022 Election Term.