It was revealed yesterday that in a departure from the past six years, there would be none of the Auckland Councillors will be on the Auckland Transport Board of Directors.
Auckland Transport spends more than $1 billion a year running the city’s roads and public transport network, and for the last two terms councillors Christine Fletcher and Mike Lee have been paid directors on the agency’s board.
Mr Goff said removing the councillors would improve accountability, but he would keep the roles open in case it did not work out.
“The feedback I have to date is that [having councillors on the board] has not been the strongest form of accountability,” he said.
At first blush this seems like a blow for accountability and transparency, especially given transport is by far the single biggest area of council spending. But as is often the case, if you look deeper into the issue it’s not so clear that this is a bad outcome. In this post I’ll look at a couple of these issues. To be clear this isn’t about the performance of the two councillors who have served on the board to date, Christine Fletcher and Mike Lee, but more the issues having councillors in the position creates.
The key argument for having Councillors on the AT board is to provide a more direct link between them and the Council’s governing body. In theory that sounds like a good idea but in practice it just doesn’t work – and that’s not the fault of the Councillors appointed. All board directors have the same collective and individual responsibilities regardless of whether they were appointed or are an elected member. That includes keeping confidential information confidential, particularly as some discussions and decisions can impact land prices. As such the Councillors on the AT Board can’t just go back and tell the Mayor or other Councillors what was discussed. A prime example of this happening came up at the beginning of last year when AT announced they were investigating light rail on the central isthmus. Apparently, the Mayor and Councillors were only told this piece of work had been happening shortly before AT told the public.
As I understand it, some elected members were quite annoyed they weren’t told earlier by their colleagues who sit on the AT Board but those two board member simply weren’t allowed to tell them without breaching their board responsibilities. What’s the point of having them there if the rules prevent them from reporting back to council.
One answer is that it could be to push the council’s agenda. But in cases like LRT, how could they know the council’s thoughts without telling them. Further Because all the important stuff is discussed behind closed doors, we also can’t tell if the Councillors are pushing the approved council agenda or their own personal views.
We’ve been lucky that for the first two terms, Len appointed Councillors who we know have played key roles in supporting the improvement of public transport in Auckland but he or a future mayor could have just as easily appointed someone who is on the other side of the PT supporting spectrum. In that regard having no Councillors on the AT Board and better use being made of the council’s toolkit for managing AT might be a better long term approach – I’ll cover that later in the post.
Another issue with having the Councillors on the board is it gives them multiple bites at the cherry that other Councillors don’t get an opportunity to do, and this goes both ways. In one situation, a Councillor might push a project/stance that the rest of the council votes against. They can then use their position on the AT Board to try again. One case I can remember this happening in was around the debate over mowing grass berms. After council’s governing body voted to stop funding it, Christine Fletcher tried unsuccessfully to get the AT Board to agree to do it. Going the other way, a current example is Mike Lee who disagrees with decision the AT Board he is part of made over airport rail and so wants the Council to overrule that decision.
In my view having Councillors on the board then creates odd situations when those same Councillors then criticise a decision made by AT that they were involved in making, or where AT are criticised for following a policy the board approved.
And AT’s Chairman Lester Levy says this in the article above.
The mayor is my boss
It’s good to have that nice and clear. He also says this about decisions
There are differences of opinions, yes, but there are differences of opinions between normally appointed members.
Of course, none of this is to say that AT should be left unaccountable to do their own thing. The opposite is true but the council have several ways they can improve the accountability of AT. The biggest thing they could do is taking a much greater interest in setting and holding AT to their annual Statement of Intent (SOI). The SOI is the document that lays out each year what AT should be focusing on and what their targets are. From what I see the SOI is far too often not bold enough and most Councillors just seem to rubber stamp it.
There also doesn’t appear to be any serious consequences for missing targets, such as for patronage. Nor are there any consequences for AT’s seeming continual disregard for various council plans and strategies like with the City Centre Master Plan vision for Victoria St that we’ve highlighted recently. The Council beefing up their oversight role would likely reap greater dividends than having Councillors on the board – each earning an extra ~$50k per annum for doing so.
Goff’s decision to re-evaluate the decision in a year’s time seems like a good solution. If it turns out AT start making even stupider decisions then some Councillors could always be added back again. What’s not clear is if the council will then appoint some directors on a one year term to make up the board numbers.
Six years in it feels like now is an appropriate time to shake things up to change how the organisation is run at both a board and management level to ensure we get better outcomes.