Scrapping consultation 'would erode democracy'

By John Cousins

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A proposal to scrap the annual round of public consultation on council financial planning has alarmed the chairman of a prominent Tauranga ratepayers group.

"People have died for the freedoms we have today," Papamoa Progressive Association chairman Steve Morris said.

He was responding to a recommendation by the Local Government Efficiency Taskforce to scrap annual plans and replace them with annual budgets, in which there would be no public consultation.

The task force, in its report to the Government, said: "We consider that the annual plan, in its current form, is inefficient and ineffective."

It was appointed by the Government to provide independent advice on how to streamline local government consultation, planning and financial reporting.

The recommendation would effectively limit public participation on council financial planning to once every three years, when 10-year plans were reviewed.

Annual budgets would not be subject to public consultation except if there was a change to the long-term plan. The task force said the 2002 Local Government Act had allowed for decisions to be re-litigated within the three-year planning cycle.

Mr Morris saw merit in reducing the duplication that went with annual plans but opposed not giving the community a say in annual budgets.

"We should have some opportunity to keep an eye on how the council was spending its money," he said.

He said in his opinion there had been instances in the past 12 months where the council had flushed money down the drain, such as the abandoned Mount Hot Pools project and the planned tsunami sirens where the association was pushing for much cheaper old-style air raid sirens.

"Local knowledge is important. For the community to only have a say once every three years is troubling," Mr Morris said.

He was concerned losing consultation could lead to a culture of disinterest in civic affairs. "It upsets me to see democracy being eroded," he said.

The task force also wants to get back to the situation where elected representatives made decisions on behalf of the community, whereas the act suggested that their primary role was to implement the wishes of the community. The task force said this "blurred purpose" created confusion and unnecessary consultation.

Another major recommendation was to change the timing of three-yearly reviews of 10-year plans so they aligned with the council election cycle. Instead of the review falling in the second year of a council's term in office, the review would happen in the first year and so become the basis for the council's accountability with the community during its term in office. The task force's 32 recommendations also included repealing the "prescriptive rules" in the act on council decision-making. It highlighted how judicial reviews of decisions had extended from major matters to reviews of "considerably less importance".

The task force said the act had become a fertile ground for judicial challenge and made councils risk-averse, resulting in unnecessary levels of consultation, undue delays and increased costs.

It sought to replace the rules in the act with a set of principles, including that councils made decisions in a timely and effective manner, appropriate to the significance of the decision.

The task force said councils needed to take "reasonable steps to gather a representative view from the community on significant issues" including by the use of surveys. There would be no requirement to consult.

The eight-person task force included former Bay of Plenty Regional Council chief executive Bill Bayfield.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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