Charting a new course at WRC

By Geoffrey Robinson, Reihana Robinosn

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Waikato Regional Council chairperson Paula Southgate Photo: Stephen Barker/Barker Photography.
Waikato Regional Council chairperson Paula Southgate Photo: Stephen Barker/Barker Photography.

Waikato Regional Council is at a crossroad.

When newly-elected councillors shocked ex-mayor Bob Simcock in what was supposed to be his festive political comeback coronation at the Hamilton Gardens pavilion last Thursday - it was about much more than upsetting the regional council leadership cart.

A unified Rates Control Team from across the Waikato showed it was no longer business as usual by attracting key independents to swing the WRC chairmanship for veteran Paula Southgate and deputy slot for first-term Nga Hau e Wha rep Tipa Mahuta.

Councillors twice rejected a core team of three Waikato ex-mayors and WRC ex-chairman Peter Buckley, each with self-proclaimed Wellington connections and palpable senses of personal political entitlement and destiny.

In consigning the 'Three Amigos' and their sidekick to support roles, the new council reflected a reduction in Government and corporate influence over Waikato local government for the next three years, including any thought of imposing a region-wide super unitary council.

The leadership vote also implied Waikato Regional Council is in for a major rethink of its relatively new business-oriented mission and strategic direction, along with a long list of policy and spending decisions.

Will WRC return to its traditional priority route on Environment Street, or keep barreling headlong down Economic Expressway?

In the wake of 2010 local body elections, with entrenched Wellington-friendly leadership and a compliant majority, WRC announced a sharp turn in strategic direction, which up to then had clearly placed environmental protection as job number one.

The new WRC strategic catch phrase 'Competing Globally, Caring Locally' said central Government would be calling in the plays to Hamilton East, with economic development the new mantra and more regional rates dollars diverted to the growth objectives of New Zealand corporates.

In only three years, the results included the velodrome millions and extensive spending on development of industrial finfish farming off the Coromandel coast, with Hamilton and regional ratepayers forced to pay for intensive dairy and mining pollution clean-ups.

The council wiped 'environment' from its Environment Waikato name and soon entirely eliminated its own environment committee. In its 2010-13 strategic direction statement, every sentence with the words 'economic' and 'environmental' placed them in that order.

Topping this month's to-do list is a triennial review of the council's strategic direction. Along with a decline of old-guard council leadership and influence, the 'Competing Globally' concept could be found to be inappropriate and ready for replacement. A core of newly-elected and experienced councillors have stated clean water, healthy ecosystems, and environmental protection should be properly restored to centre stage.

For Hamiltonians, last week's WRC events stymied a stealth attempt of retread Simcock to come in over the head of his nemesis, Julie Hardaker and Hamilton City Council. Had Simcock climbed back in the saddle at WRC along with his small posse, regional council and Government influence over western Waikato and Hamilton's political future would have been substantially increased.

New WRC chair Southgate will no doubt attempt to engineer a few committee chairmanships for the Three Amigos as a show of her good sportsmanship when votes are taken November 28.

Southgate's first conciliation attempt by nominating Waipa ex-mayor Alan Livingston as her deputy went down in flames last week. Having gained election to nearly half the council's constituency seats, the Rates Control Team group, including four smart new faces and two veterans, should lead three or four committees. Anything less would be a rebuff of voters across the region.

The WRC leadership surprise will also affect the future influence of the Waikato Mayoral Forum, which morphed suddenly three years ago from an informal group where mayors and CEOs share information to an unaccountable, self-appointed regional planning body.

Most recently, the group published a discussion paper on regional economic development that would eventually trump city and other district plans.

But three forum members for the last three years, including its chairman, are no longer there and were among those rejected last week at their new regional council home. The new crop of WRC councillors, several of whom clearly oppose unofficial moves toward expanded all-Waikato economic development and spatial planning, will want a say in what the forum's work streams should be - and what they should not be.

Sometimes, a leadership vote is nothing more than a simple show of hands. At Waikato Regional Council last week, it was more like a show of strength.

Geoffrey Robinson and Reihana Robinson comment regularly on local government, public policy, and environmental issues. Send your comments to robinsonsreport@gmail.com.

- Hamilton News

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