At least 4100 signatures have been gathered as the first step to stopping the Western Bay District Council from creating separate Maori seats.

Organisers today handed the petition to the council's customer relationships team leader Carolyn Bennett-Ouellet.

The petition has collected enough signatures to pass the threshold of 1708 signatures needed to force the council to hold a binding referendum on Maori wards. The district is currently split into three general wards.

Te Puke's Richard McNair who led the petition said a random check of signatures showed there were at least 2532 eligible voters - people who were registered to vote in the Western Bay District Council area.

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The referendum, to be held later this year, will decide whether the council introduces Maori wards at the 2019 election. It followed the council voting 9-3 last year to support the introduction of Maori wards.

And with petition forms still arriving every day, McNair said they could end up with nearly 5000 signatures.

George Van Dyke and Katikati Community Board member Norm Mayo knocked on 600 doors in Katikati, with Mayo saying they got an excellent response.

He said older people were more passionate about the issue which was about returning democracy to the council.

Western Bay councillor Margaret Murray-Benge said one of the saddest things was how the council had raised expectations among the Maori community but failed to consult with anyone else.

''It was amazing how fast these [petition] sheets filled up.''

Murray-Benge said she could not believe the anger among people approached for their signatures and how pleased they were that someone had asked their opinion.

Councillor Kevin Marsh said the petition snowballed as people photocopied sheets to distribute to their friends. Based on the response to the petition, he believed the majority of Western Bay residents would oppose Maori wards.

If the council had gone to the community to start with, they would not be here today, he said.

Councillor Mike Lally said the thing that surprised him most about the petition was how many Maori had signed it.

The petition said: ''We believe that Maori wards in the Western Bay of Plenty District Council are unnecessary and that we now have met the legal requirements for a binding referendum to be held on this matter.''

Deputy mayor Don Thwaites said the petition was ''pretty indicative of the mood of the electorate''.

Quizzed on whether the council should have consulted more widely before voting, Thwaites said the council has been talking and consulting on Maori wards since the last time the issue was voted on by the council six years ago.

On that occasion, the council was locked 6-6 and the casting vote of the mayor was needed to stick with the status quo.

''It has been part of ongoing discussions... I acknowledge that some people have strong views, and that is the way it is.''

Thwaites believed that things would change as young people came through. While the referendum might lead to some negativity, he believed the process would not create divisions but instead be informative and educational.

Historian Buddy Mikaere, interviewed last month when it looked almost certain that the petitioners would force a poll, said he suspected that a referendum would go against Maori wards. While the petitioners had been lobbying flat out, no one had been in the public arena arguing for Maori wards.

Mikaere said he was neither surprised nor disheartened that the 1708 signatures would be reached, but was slightly disappointed. ''It might not be this time.''

Public referendum on Maori wards
- Cost $70,000
- Deadline for demand for poll: February 21.
- Deadline for poll: May 21.