Conflict over use of community building

It’s not yet known when the Howick War Memorial building, formerly known as the Howick Information Centre, in Picton Street, will reopen to the community. Times photo Wayne Martin

There’s strong disagreement over how a historic east Auckland community asset should be managed.

In the first half of 2020, the Howick War Memorial building, formerly known as the Howick Information Centre, closed along with most other Auckland Council facilities when New Zealand went into a Covid-19 lockdown.

In September the Howick Local Board publicly called for expressions of interest from groups keen to be involved with running the Picton Street facility, which is yet to reopen.

A recommendation put to the board at its December business meeting advised it to approve the Howick Village Association (HVA) “as the preferred applicant at this stage” to manage the building, for several reasons.

They included that the association is well-established and has strong organisational and financial capability to manage a community facility, among others.

However, when the board arrived at that item during its meeting, member David Collings moved an amendment to the recommendation, which was seconded by member Katrina Bungard.

Collings’ proposed change gave approval to council officers to talk to multiple groups about the prospect of working together “for the overall benefit of the Howick community” and report back to the board in February next year.

The groups include the HVA as well as applicants such as the Manukau East Council of Social Services (MECOSS), OneAfrica Incorporated, Uxbridge Community Projects Incorporated, Howick Tourism and the Pakuranga Chinese Association, among others.

Collings declared an interest in MECOSS to his board colleagues.

He said he understood council staff wanting to have one head group in charge of the building but he disagreed with that approach as “it makes it harder for individual groups to work together” if there’s one primary tenant.

“They are always on the back foot and it doesn’t matter who they are.

“If there’s a head group it feels like they’re taking control.

“I would like to see different groups in there working in the interest of the community.”

Board deputy chairman John Spiller spoke against Collings’ amendment.

Spiller said the building has been shut for 20 months and the board’s been working for nearly a year to get an outcome for it.

“The council said they need a legal entity to enter into an arrangement and that already exists with the HVA.

“It could take another six months to cobble together a legal entity with eight other groups.”

Board chairperson Adele White also spoke against Collings’ amendment.

“I was originally in favour of applicants jointly occupying the building,” she said.

“However I have accepted that the group, the HVA, have stated they will be welcoming others to use the facility.

“That is the better option and it gives the whole nine applicants the opportunity to utilise the building, and in fact others that didn’t get to apply.”

Voting for Collings’ amendment were himself and board members Bungard, Bo Burns, Bruce Kendall, Mike Turinsky and Bob Wichman.

Members White, Spiller, and Peter Young opposed the amendment, which was carried by six votes to three.

The board then passed the full motion which included Collings’ amendment.

Members of the Howick Local Board, pictured, disagree over the best way for the Howick War Memorial building to be managed. Photo supplied

Following the meeting, HVA chairman Ken Scott told the Times the association is disappointed with Collings’ amendment and the board’s decision to pursue the option of having multiple groups work together to manage the building.

Scott says the amendment is additionally disappointing given Collings’ and Bungard’s ties to MECOSS, which is one of the organisations included in the amendment and a competing applicant to manage the building.

Collings and Bungard are chairperson and deputy chairperson of MECOSS respectively and both serve on its executive committee.

Scott says he’s talked to a council officer and pointed out the board’s decision to have multiple groups work together to manage the building may delay its reopening.

“Our intention right from the outset, as quickly as possible, was to have that facility open for community use.

“One of the issues is what is going to be the legal entity that is going to sign this documentation [to manage the building]?

“If they’re looking at an incorporated society of nine organisations I would imagine all those will have to go back and get legal clearance and that’s going to be a prolonged period of time.

“The concern we have is this could drag out for some time to come before the public get access to that building.

“It’s been over two years already.”

Scott’s sentiment is shared by fellow HVA executive committee member Gerald Patterson, who says he’s “extremely disappointed” with the board’s vote on the matter.

Patterson’s comments are his personal opinions and not made on behalf of the HVA.

He says the HVA’s application to manage the facility was the strongest and was well supported.

“I believe there’s a risk the building will carry on being closed until this gets sorted out.

“You’ve only got to look at the state of the old [Howick] library building and how that’s been left unused.

“I would like to think the board could revisit their decision.”

Collings says he understands Scott’s disappointment, but the original recommendation put to the board wasn’t going to pass as a number of members had indicated before the meeting they didn’t support it.

“Our [his and Bungard’s] involvement had no bearing on the outcome of the vote, as with neither of us included there were four members of the board that did not support the recommendation, as obviously it would have passed otherwise.

“I don’t feel Katrina or myself have any conflict of interest as neither of us have any pecuniary interest in any matters relating to MECOSS.

“We are volunteers giving our time freely and are proud to work amongst a fine group of people that do much within the community.”

Bungard says since she was elected to the board in 2013, its members have wanted the building to serve as a mixed-use community hub utilised by a variety of groups in the Howick ward.

“The majority of the board had concerns over granting the lease to one particular group as we felt, over time, the idea of a facility used by multiple groups working together as a community hub may be lost, with one group assuming possession rights.

“We voted on a motion that allowed for all the groups that put forward applications to be contacted to initiate discussions on how such a community hub may be run collectively.

“I do not believe I have a conflict of interest on this vote as I was certainly not advocating for any particular group to assume the rights to the lease. Quite the contrary.”

White says she’s unable to comment on the matter as the board “is now awaiting further information before a decision is made” on the building’s management.