Clear direction crucial for council merger

By John Cousins

Political pressure could end up making a Bay of Plenty super council dysfunctional, a Tauranga-based international expert on public sector management has warned.

Peter McKinlay, of consultancy McKinlay Douglas, was responding to Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby's hopes that local government reforms would pave the way for a single unitary authority for the Bay, including the functions of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council.

Mr McKinlay said New Zealand needed strong government at regional level. The big question was whether the territorial councils took over the region, the regional council absorbed the territorials, or a model emerged that was neither of those two.

The thinking behind what was driving local government restructuring was not clear to him and questions were not being asked with enough vigour.<inline type="poll" id="4660" align="outside"/>

"You need to have some sense of what you are trying to achieve - what are the options and what will work the most effectively?"

He highlighted the potentially destabilising influence on a super council if differences between parts of the region were not solved.

Mr McKinlay said it was still too early to make judgments on the new Auckland super council but a pointer to what could happen if things were not handled correctly was the amalgamations in 1998 that led to the formation of a new council for the Canadian city of Toronto.

He said Toronto was still regarded as significantly dysfunctional because the 44 elected ward members continued to represent their local interests. Decisions on the structure of the council had not addressed the underlying need to make tough decisions.

If a ward-based unitary council was created based on the Bay's communities of interest, how could you be sure that politicians would sing from the same song sheet, he asked.

Mr McKinlay said rumours were rife about whether Local Government Minister Nick Smith would be the equivalent of Armageddon or whether his Cabinet colleagues would pour cold water on what he was going to do. "There will be trade-offs before Cabinet arrived at a certain direction."

Rotorua Mayor Kevin Winters opposed a Bay-wide amalgamation, saying he did not think it would work very well. If there were amalgamations, Rotorua's communities of interest extended from Kawerau to Taupo."We have very strong associations with Taupo, as opposed to Tauranga and the Western Bay of Plenty."

It included sharing the same health board, having a lot in common with tourism, strong police links, the same geothermal fault, lake water quality issues and education through the Waiariki Institute of Technology. Rotorua's southern boundary also extended as far south as Reparoa and about a third of its catchments were in the Waikato Regional Council area. Any unitary authority would be about the environment, water quality and geothermal resources, he said.

Mr McKinlay is on the Research Advisory Group of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, he is an associate of the Centre for Local Government at the Sydney University of Technology and is a director of the Local Government Centre at AUT University.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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