The local body elections are just around the corner, with the October 8 close-off date now just a couple of weeks away. So the candidates have their signboards out and their websites up. They’ve delivered more public speeches, press releases and commentary in the past six weeks than we’ve seen from them in the past two years, such is the anonymity of local body politics.

That anonymity is bad for democracy. I’ve been running my eyes over many of the candidates, trying to work out where to place my votes in a way that supports what I see as the needs of the city. I have to say it’s not easy to understand who should and who shouldn’t be elected.

Like many people, I would like to see change. The Phil Goff era has seen Auckland become a very difficult city to live in. The CBD is a shambles, justifiably deserted by those who prefer to work from home to avoid the mess.

Auckland Transport has been allowed to run amok. Carparks have been taken away, in some cases replaced by pot plants and even picnic tables. Perfectly good roads have been narrowed, loaded with unnecessary judder bars or closed off altogether. For some unfathomable reason, footpaths have been tripled in width in places, despite the lack of pedestrians. Speed limits in perfectly safe streets have been reduced.

Beyond the CBD, the rush hour gridlock has returned post-Covid, public transport has made little progress and the City Rail Link is now so far over time and budget that no official is brave enough to make a new assessment of cost or timeframes.

Back on the roads, the availability of cycle lanes does not appear to have brought more cyclists. Meanwhile, inexplicable decisions continue to be made resulting in bollards creating cycle lanes such as those along Greenhithe’s Upper Harbour Highway, a road now too dangerous for both cyclists and drivers.

The outgoing council has been complicit in the city’s acceptance of the Government’s Three Waters campaign, and this year a council budget was presented and passed that this columnist referred to as representing a complete misunderstanding of basic financial management on the part of the mayor and councillors who voted for it.

Shopping strips such as Takapuna have been rendered a shadow of their former selves by a constant stream of roadworks, and a one-way system that has all but shut off access.

Free left turns are replaced by unnecessary traffic lights.

Between them, the Government and its support crew — aka Auckland Council — have paved the way for the ruination of our suburbs, with the desire to build high-density housing trumping the logic of maintaining our suburbia, irrespective of the financial cost and loss of privacy that will be incurred by Auckland homeowners.

In fact, since Super City status was bestowed on our largest metropolis, the city has gone in one direction — backwards.

As a result, I will be voting for change. Not just a small change either. Somehow, we need to find a mayor and supportive council who are prepared to challenge the current approach to managing the affairs of our city. We need a team who are up for a complete re-think of what’s important for the people of Auckland.

Ideally, I’ll be looking for people who are well-qualified, with experience in leadership and decision making outside of the bureaucracy. People who can reverse some of the woke nonsense going on around the operation of our local authorities. People who are capable of and prepared to make tough decisions. People who can read a profit & loss and a balance sheet. People who are prepared to stand up to the often ridiculous ultimatums from our current ideological Government. And most importantly, people equipped to make a plan that makes sense and get on with turning things around.

So I’ve been looking around the candidates. Reading their websites. Following their announcements and comments. Trying to understand their qualifications, experience and affiliations.

The trouble is, they don’t make it easy. Many candidates are shy about revealing too much about their background and experience.

Sure, they will tell you how long they’ve lived in the city and how passionate they are about it. But they shy away from saying too much about their experience in leadership, management and getting things done. Democracy should enable every voter to make a considered and informed choice against the priorities he or she sees for the city. The information available doesn’t permit that. In some cases, the available information is misleading.

Then there is the thorny issue of party affiliation. There seems to be a long list of Labour Party-affiliated candidates lining up for the election. To the party’s credit, the Labour website details those they are openly supporting.

However, at a time when Labour’s popularity is sliding from its previous highs, it seems some of those accredited candidates are rather shy about admitting where their loyalty lies.

One of the most interesting contests is the now two-way battle for the Auckland mayoralty, where the leading candidates appear to be Wayne Brown and Efeso Collins. Craig Lord probably deserves to be in the mix too, but his early campaign was drowned out by the profile of Viv Beck and Leo Molloy, both of whom subsequently withdrew.

In my view Brown is capable and independent. He might come across as the grumpy old man of the election race, but there are many who think we need a bit of that. There are not many people in New Zealand who have experience of leading very large organisations, but he does. He hasn’t been shy about touting that experience in his campaign.

Collins doesn’t have that pedigree, so capability and experience do not form part of his campaign. Instead, his commentary is about his desire for free public transport, reducing climate change and alleviating the cost of living — hardly items within the control of a city mayor.

The Labour Party website will tell you Collins is the party’s official, endorsed candidate.

However, Auckland Council’s list labels him as “independent”. His own marketing, including a letter in my mailbox this week, describes him as “fiercely independent”. His signs and his website are devoid of Labour Party red. Instead, his colours are dark blue with a bit of burgundy.

And yet, in return for Labour’s endorsement, the party expectation, as outlined in their constitution, is that candidates sign a pledge to support and implement Labour policy and principles.

I’m sorry Efeso, but that does not make you “fiercely independent”.

He’s not alone. According to a Herald article this year, Collins beat North Shore councillor Richard Hills for the Labour nomination. As a result, Hills revised his focus back on retaining his council seat. Like Collins, his Labour Party affiliation is absent from the Auckland Council list. His campaign colours, including his signs, are teal blue. The look and feel is closer to National than to Labour.

Like Hills, Pippa Coom is another Auckland councillor seeking re-election. Her patch is Waitematā and Gulf. She represents City Vision and is listed on the Labour Party website as one of their endorsed candidates.

Coom has garnered some controversy thanks to her role as co-chair of the Hauraki Gulf Forum. There she has championed proposals for co-governance of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. The issue prompted the Gulf Users Group to establish a petition against the plans which quickly gained 14,000 signatures. Coom responded with the statement that “we are not here to bring the public along, or the 14,000 members of the Gulf Users Group”.

Wrong answer. In a democracy, and as an elected official, it is her job to listen to the views of the people she represents. If she’s not prepared to do that, she should step aside.

A quick look at Coom’s website refers to her track record of “listening widely and building consensus”. The website is black and white with the City Vision logo. Of course there is no detail about her background or qualifications ‘pre-politics’, and no mention of the Labour party endorsement.

The Hauraki Gulf plan prompted Albany councillor John Watson to speak out against it.

His comments led to a code of conduct complaint brought against him by Pippa and her co-chair Cath Handley. That complaint was promptly dismissed by Auckland University law professor Ron Paterson, who said “the code should not be used to silence members who express strongly held opinions on matters of public interest”.

The comments above refer to the campaigns of just a few high-profile candidates. The point is this: the state of the city suggests we need a better qualified, more capable, council.

To get that, we need an overhaul of the system. An overhaul which requires people running for public office — national or local — to be more transparent about their backgrounds, affiliations and qualifications.

At council level we require a balance of financial, legal, engineering and environmental expertise. And we need people with experience across the arts, sports, geography and the outdoors, to get the best for the city.

These people are essentially applying for jobs. These roles are more important than most. And yet most roles require a CV and some references as a minimum.

As voters, we need to understand whether people have the skills, experience and capability to run the city. So we need full and honest biographies of candidates rather than the two-paragraph “puff piece” we currently get. Ideally with references from previous employers or clients outlining why they are suitable.

If local body candidates have affiliations to any of the political parties, that should be declared on their campaign materials, just as is required in national elections.

Finally, I’d like to see a limit on the term councillors can serve. A maximum council term of nine years would ensure that we don’t get overloaded with career politicians who have never been outside the bureaucracy.

The city is at a crisis point, and we need to think carefully before we cast our very important vote.

And a hint for the new council: remember the people you serve.

This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald on Saturday 24 September 2022.