Stadium report debacle shows Goff still learning council politics

9:40 am on 22 May 2018

What's the difference between being the Minister of Auckland, and the Mayor of Auckland?

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff. Photo: Auckland Council

It's something Auckland Mayor Phil Goff may need to ponder half way through his first term, after three decades in Parliament.

Alarm bells should be ringing in the mayoral office over the frustration among councillors at Mr Goff's handling of the million-dollar-report on a possible downtown stadium.

The councillors said they knew nothing of the report's existence, commissioned by the mayor 16 months ago.

The report was released on Friday but only after the Ombudsman ruled the council should not have withheld it from RNZ for nearly six months.

It's a major piece of work and the first formal step in what could be a long-running process if the council pursues building a world-class stadium on the edge of the CBD.

Mr Goff's interest in the idea was no secret. He referred to it repeatedly during his 2016 mayoral campaign. His repeated mistake was to embark on its pursuit without getting councillors behind him.

Mr Goff is a former Labour cabinet minister and party leader. A fascination of his decision to switch from Parliament to local body politics was whether he'd adapt to a very difference style. He appeared to know the difference, rightly observing in public that the mayor was ultimately just one of 21 votes around the council table.

A cabinet minister is a different kettle of political fish. A minister is a supreme being in his or her portfolio. A minister can demand reports from officials, knowing they can be delivered from within the relevant ministry of department. A minister's decision, once passed through cabinet, is almost guaranteed to happen.

Mr Goff may be learning but he remains dogged by decisions he made in the early days of his mayoralty.

He ordered a report on the value of the vehicle import trade, after campaigning on a desire to move the trade elsewhere, followed by the rest of the port. He gave the job to the council's small caretaker agency Auckland Council Investments Limited (ACIL,) which manages the relationship with the council-owned Ports of Auckland.

ACIL has no internal capability to deliver such a report so the job ended up in the hands of Ports, which paid for a report from consultants NZIER. Not surprisingly, the report reflected the Ports' views.

The vehicle trade's loss could remove up to $1 billion dollars from the regional economy.

The mayor's office, led by former New Zealand Treasury deputy secretary David Wood, contested the methodology.

RNZ requested a copy of it, a request resisted for five months, until the Ombudsman ruled it should be released.

The cost of the report has not been revealed but probably ran into six figures. It went into the wastepaper basket.

Mr Goff announced in March 2017 that consultants PWC had been commissioned to do a study on a downtown stadium. That announcement may have been missed by some councillors, and anyway the consultants had been engaged almost two months earlier through a different council agency.

The report was delivered in the middle of last year but the mayor opted not to get a copy, wanting to be brief in person - a move that allowed him to tell RNZ on Tuesday he had "seen" the report only two or three weeks ago.

On the Friday release of the stadium report came the news that the original estimate for the research ballooned from between $250,000 and 500,000, to $930,000.

Councillors felt blind-sided. Nearly $1 million worth of ratepayers' money had been spent without councillors' endorsement.

Because more than 30 pages of detail had been redacted from the report, the mayor's office allowed councillors to view the original version only by visiting his office.

"Over my dead body," said councillor Cathy Casey, so incensed she wrote to the Ombudsman herself.

Mr Goff's work ethic, commitment, and attention to detail is legendary but as a mayor of Auckland, that's not enough.

"He still has a parliamentary outlook. He's not running Auckland, he's one of 21 and he has to take people with him" said Dr Casey.

The issue now seems to be parked while the mayor and councillors work together through the reality of organising the council's 10-year budget.

RNZ understands Mr Goff has agreed to be more inclusive next time.