Secret reports – plausible denial: Auckland Council’s winter of discontent

It’s certainly proving to be a Winter of Discontent within the Auckland Council. It’s this discontent that was behind the recent letter expressing ‘strong dissatisfaction’ with the ‘secretive and non-inclusive’ leadership style of Mayor Phil Goff, signed by nine councillors including myself, (the so-called ‘Albert Street Nine’). The letter can be traced back to a report commissioned by the mayor on a ‘downtown national football stadium’, and kept secret from the councillors for nearly a year. It didn’t help either that the report cost nearly $1 million. Nor that Goff only made it available to councillors when its existence was disclosed by Radio NZ and under pressure from the Ombudsman – and then in a form so heavily censored that it was quite unreadable. I have been in local government for 26 years and I’ve never seen ‘redacting’ on this scale. Whole pages were simply blacked out. Several weeks on, Goff has finally agreed to release the report uncensored, on request – but the damage has been done.

At a meeting called to discuss the affair I had the opportunity to question the mayor face-to-face. Mr Goff confirmed that he requested the report early in 2017, via the CCO Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA). The report by PWC was completed in June 2017 but according to Goff, while he was briefed on its contents, he never asked for a copy. However at this briefing he asked for further information and so a second report was commissioned, again by PWC, and completed in September. Same story. Goff was briefed but according to him he never asked for, nor was he given a copy. Nor did he ask for or was told the price. Goff claimed he only received the report(s) and became aware of the cost in April this year. We have to take his word for all this but for someone who obviously has a bit of an obsession with a new football stadium, not reading the reports he commissioned is certainly strange behaviour. And certainly given the secretiveness, unacceptable behaviour. Goff’s fixation with a ‘downtown’ stadium can be traced back to late 2006 when the then Labour government led by Minister of Sport Trevor Mallard came up with the idea of a ‘waterfront’ stadium located in the harbour, for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Goff has been putting it about that the government pledged to build the stadium for free.   This is simply not true. Fortunately as I was the chairman of the Auckland Regional Council at the time I’ve kept a file. While there were certainly hints of government largesse, Mr Mallard was careful to avoid making commitments. Talk of government support melted away as the estimates for this very challenging project (in terms of engineering and deadline), climbed towards $1billion. After two weeks of intensive briefings from a range of experts, including Mallard himself, in November 2006 the ARC unanimously voted against it. It was my job to tell Prime Minister Helen Clark that having carefully studied the proposal it was our best judgement that Eden Park was a more sensible and affordable option for the Rugby World Cup. It was a sound decision and was backed by a clear majority of Aucklanders – but clearly not by Mr Goff.

Back to the present where it appears that despite all the other pressing problems and costs Auckland faces, a new football stadium appears to be still very much the mayor’s ambition. The final catalyst for the nine councillors was to be called to an ‘urgent briefing’ late on 7 June to be told discussions were underway about moving Speedway from Western Springs where it has been for 90 years, to a venue in South Auckland. Despite assurances that this was no ‘done deal’ and had no implications for cricket, the NZ Herald the next morning announced a memorandum-of understanding was to be signed that day by the mayor, RFA and Speedway promoters committing to the move and that Western Springs indeed was intended for cricket. Speedway has long complained of pressure to get out but now to assist the move support amounting to $14m including up to $300,000 for a council-paid project manager is part of the deal. That RFA and Goff want to move cricket from Eden Park to Western Springs is no secret – and hotly opposed by Auckland Cricket. The game plan seems to be to undermine Eden Park (which completed a major upgrade in 2011) and thereby make a ‘downtown’ stadium (now estimated to cost nearly $2 billion) to be somehow justifiable. It’s this sort of behaviour that’s causing councillors from across the political spectrum to question Mr Goff’s leadership style and judgement. And now we have learned of the existence of another report, this one on light rail, commissioned by Goff from Auckland Transport. Given the importance of this project, the mayor’s convoluted explanation for keeping it from councillors for 8 months is unconvincing. This is why this council is not a happy ship. It looks like it’s going to be a long winter.

This article published in the June issues of Ponsonby News, The Hobson and also The Daily Blog.

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