Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown’s decision to make changes to committee leadership within council have ruffled feathers around the governing body.
The reshuffle of positions established a new budget committee to allow for independent Māori statutory board input, expanded Howick councillor Maurice Williamson’s financial duties and moved chair positions around.
Most controversially, the move included a plan to switch out one of Auckland Council’s liaisons on the Auckland Transport board – in this case Waitematā and Gulf’s Mike Lee, replaced with North Shore’s Chris Darby.
It’s within the mayor’s purview to shake up the committees, but it’s up to the governing body to appoint a representative on the AT board.
That means the Lee-for-Darby swap-out was a recommendation rather than a ruling by Brown.
Nevertheless, it’s not one that went down easily in council chambers.
Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa ward councillor Christine Fletcher was visibly angry on Lee’s behalf, saying the move was clumsy and disrespectful.
“Well, I’m not going to use the f-word or anything else that seems to be common around here, but how do I express my displeasure to you that this is muddly… it’s clumsy,” Fletcher said. “It feels like an ambush, and I expected better from you, and I’m really disgusted today.”
Fletcher said she’d only been able to access the report that recommended the change the night before, saying the mayor should have personally communicated his plans to each of the councillors.
Deputy Mayor Desley Simpson put forward a motion to defer the decision a month, giving councillors an important choice to discuss that they hadn’t had much time to consider.
But allies of Lee saw this as an untenable limbo, with both he and Darby forced to pace while awaiting the decision a month later.
“In public life, you have a lot of scrutiny, it’s hard enough to be an elected representative,” Fletcher said. “But to leave somebody sort of on the boiler for a month, not knowing whether the court of King Wayne is going to chop your head off or not, I think is just not acceptable to me.”
It was ultimately a moot point, as the decision to defer failed to pass, with eight councillors voting for it, 10 against and one abstention.
And so the next vote was called, deciding whether Darby would replace Lee.
It was as close as a vote can get, with nine votes for, nine against, two abstentions and one absence.
Caught in a perfect stalemate, the decision goes to the mayor, who gets an additional tie-breaking vote.
Albany councillor John Watson reminded him he didn’t t have to vote for the motion in his casting vote, and could go with the status quo, leaving the two councillors where they were.
That wasn’t Brown’s plan, however, and he gave a final casting vote to replace Lee with Darby.
Brown took pains to point out that he wasn’t dishing out rewards based on who supported him through the recent polarising budget process.
“There are no rewards for good behaviour or bad behaviour here,” he said. “Some people who voted for my budget haven’t been particularly rewarded and some people voted against my budget and have been rewarded.”
Lee was re-elected to Auckland Council as a supporter of the mayor, who utilised his experience with the transport agency by returning him to his former spot as council liaison.
During the lengthy budget decision, however, Lee took umbrage at Brown’s appetite for public asset sales. Now a matter of months later, he’s been shuffled out of one of his prized roles.
Brown had plenty of reasons why, however – Lee has been moved to chair a group looking into regional parks, which the mayor said is an area in need of his expertise.
Then there’s the fact that Darby is already a liaison for council to Auckland’s light rail project and could potentially act as a valuable link between the two.
But Albany ward councillor Wayne Walker rejected this last point, saying that if National got in at the general election, the light rail project may be cancelled, rendering that issue “entirely redundant”.
Walker’s running mate John Watson also had Lee’s back, questioning why he should be removed from the position.
“It’s clear that councillor Lee is quite happy to remain in that position, so it seems to me particularly objectionable that his peers would not continue to hold the confidence of that individual,” he said before the vote. “What’s he done? What is it? I don’t know. Yet, you’re all set to … consider moving him out … a number of you have quite rightly talked about collegiality being a team and mental health… in a few minutes we are going to see if we are going to think about one of our colleagues.”
Lee himself remained civil about the move, and stressed that he didn’t feel entitled to the role at the transport agency.
“It’s kind of embarrassing really for me, but I just want to thank the members for their kind words,” he said. “I want to assure yourself and the councillors that … I’ve made no attempt to lobby, argue, or justify my role … I have no sense of entitlement for that role, I’m there purely to serve and purely at the behest of the governing body.”
Not every move sparked outrage among the governing body, however. Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa councillor Julie Fairey thanked the mayor for her inclusion in the civil defence committee, given her ward was particularly impacted by this year’s flooding.
Meanwhile, Maungakiekie councillor Josephine Bartley’s role as chair of the regulatory and safety committee was expanded to look at matters of community safety and wellbeing.
“This focus on looking after our community was requested during the annual budget process and councillor Bartley’s been doing excellent work in that space already,” Brown said.
“Can you put that in writing?” Bartley asked in response. “Preferably in the media?”
Other changes included Waitakere councillor Shane Henderson going from deputy to chair of the committee for the oversight and direction of council-controlled organisations, replacing Wayne Walker.