The Auckland council made an important and positive decision concerning Devonport last week. Yet our three most senior, publicly-elected representatives did not support it. In fact, two of them voted against it.
The three councillors in question are Ann Hartley, George Wood and Chris Darby. Hartley and Wood represent Devonport and the rest of the Shore on the Council’s governing body, while Chris Darby is the Chair of our local Board.
So if you could name three people who you might think would support a motion to withdraw an application to the Environment Court on behalf of the Council for legal costs to be awarded against two Devonport community groups, they should be near, if not at the top of your list, right?
What on earth is going on? Here’s a bit of background.
As even the less-than-alert reader will be aware, two community groups – The Masonic Friendly Society and Devonport Heritage – have been locked in a prolonged and fierce battle with the (previous) Council and Redback Development (the owners of the Masonic’s property investment vehicle) over the future of the Masonic Tavern.
The two groups – MFSDH for short – have lost every round of the battle, but in the process have inflicted a significant amount of legal fees on their two opponents. The Council was in the process of deciding what action it would take regarding claiming these costs back from MFSDH (and incidentally, that other hotbed of subversive activism, the Historic Places Trust.)
Enter into the fray Sandra Coney; heritage heroine and member of the Council’s Regional Development Operations Committee (RDOC). Coney learns that the Council’s lawyers and officials have passed this decision on costs to two councillors who hold the positions of Chair and Deputy Chair of the Hearings Committee – Noelene Raffles and Penny Webster.
Concerned that these two councillors should be given the responsibility to decide on an issue which could have profound implications for how the Council is perceived by communities, community groups, voters and ratepayers, Coney submits a motion to RDOC , requesting that the Committee (which has the authority to do so) request the Council withdraws its costs application. Coney is supported on introducing the motion by Mike Lee.
Coney’s position is simple. How would it look if the new Council – having paraded itself as a champion of the people and a defender of Auckland’s heritage – then embarked on a battle to comprehensively shaft same? For the less than alert reader who has nevertheless persevered this far, it would Not Look Good. The motion was eventually carried 10 votes to 8, so as far as the Council’s cost claim is concerned, MFSDH are home and hosed.
With me so far? Good. Because it is from here on in that it gets murky.
For who should turn up among the naysayers, but our three most senior North Shore councillors – Hartley, Wood and Darby.
Darby, as a local Board member was unable to vote, but turned up at the committee meeting and was given an opportunity to air his views immediately before the vote by the committee Chair, Ann Hartley. Darby was clearly agin the motion and also indulged in some mildly disturbing misrepresentation of the position of the Masonic Friendly Society’s Claudia Page, confirmed by The Speculator’s conversations with both parties.
Darby’s appearance was followed by quite a kerfuffle, as it was unclear to some committee members as to whether he had been representing the view of the Devonport-Takapuna local board (DTLB) – a fairly critical piece of information – or his own. Fortunately DTLB member Jan O’Connor was present, and shouted from the gallery that he was not representing the DTLB. Jan can be a cantankerous character, but like the Shakespearian fool, she will often be on-hand to disclose an important insight at an opportune time. Case in point.
By this time Mike Lee is fairly furious that Darby has been allowed to get up and say what he said, and particularly when he was able to say it, and other committee members are similarly non-plussed. Hartley is flustered. The Speculator pauses the video (the committee debate was videoed; you can watch it here) and scratches his head. What are Hartley and Darby (HARDAR) up to?
Well, The Speculator has had some time on the phone to pretty much all the parties involved.
As far as HARDAR are concerned, it is simply a matter of following the correct process. This is, according to them, to let the Environment Court make its decision, and if it awards costs against MFSDH, the Council can then decide whether to proceed. And, they argue, history demonstrates that it was extremely rare for the local councils to go after community groups for costs.
Which, as Sandra Coney points out, has nothing to do with what the new Auckland council might do or not do. Fair point.
But HARDAR go on, muttering darkly about “sending the right signals”, “ensuring community groups act responsibly” and “ensuring the ongoing case in the Environment Court is not adversely affected.” Push them further on these themes, and they melt away into the night.
Here is The Speculator’s theory.
Hartley is the engineer of all this. Darby, being the junior partner but an ambitious man, is willing to do her bidding. As he sees it, he can’t lose, and neither (probably) can MFSDH. Either way, MFSDH were likely to get off the hook, so he’ll look good. Meanwhile, Hartley will be sending a message (or so she thinks) to MFSDH that they shouldn’t go taking a hard line with the Council (MFSDH refused to enter into mediation over the Masonic, and their all or nothing approach apparently irked Hartley). Wood voted the way he would have anyway.
Sandra Coney and Mike Lee – two individuals known for playing a straight bat while also being more than happy to get on the front foot and apply willow to leather when necessary – decided to intervene for what they believed was the good of the community groups and the reputation of the council. Len Brown was also on their side.
Ultimately – no harm was done.
However, I think Devonport as a community has learnt something about the Chairman of its local board, something about Ann Hartley and something about the relationship between the two.
What the community has learnt isn’t necessarily all bad.
Firstly, Darby is a talented politician with big plans for his future in the big pond that is the Auckland Council. He’s struck an allegiance with Hartley who will mentor him to the top, which is where she is also planning on heading. They’re movers and shakers in the new council and will Get Things Done for their constituencies to ensure their trajectories continue. The Devonport Wharf is a case in point. Darby pulled this off by being well networked with Team Brown.
Secondly, they are not the Citizens and Ratepayers, Christians for Summary Execution or any of those other ludicrous parties that we seem to have so many of in Auckland.
However, on the evidence of this episode, on the way up, Hartley may well leave a fair bit of carnage behind her. And I think we all now have a reasonable idea of who will be dutifully picking up the pieces behind her.
The note of caution is thus. If there is to be carnage (and The Speculator is firmly of the belief that you can’t make an omelette without breaking etc etc), we should not naively assume the resulting pieces of egg shell will consist solely of People Who Deserved It (PWDIR, pronounced “Poor Dear”). Rather, what we have learnt from this episode is that they could just include Opponents Of HARDAR (OOH).
Moreover, some of OOH may even be On Our Side (OOS). In their desire to get to the top, HARDAR may cease being able to discern OOH from OOS. This is generally considered to be the crossover point to the Dark Side. At which point of course, HARDAR transmogrify into Darth HARDAR.
Which leads us to the last point. A fair measure of anyone’s character is how they treat those they perceive to be their enemies, particularly in a political context, where “enemies” are really just People Who Are Getting In My Way.
HARDAR’s ends may ultimately be beneficial to Devonport, but we need to keep an eye on the means they employ to achieve them. Therein lies the true measure of integrity.
For the record, the councillors who voted against the motion are as follows;
Arthur Anae, Penny Webster, Noelene Raffills, Des Morrison, Michael Goudie, Cameron Brewer, Ann Hartley, George Wood.