Robinson Report: Stand off developing in Waikato

Since early winter, when the push for local government reform picked up momentum nationally, little has changed on the Waikato council game board. With no admission a political struggle is under way, battle lines have quietly formed in the inevitable process of reshaping local government for the Waikato.

As government advances its reform legislation and pressure grows from fed-up ratepayers and an impatient business sector, elected councillors are not waiting to stake out positions.

On one side is the recently repurposed Waikato Regional Council, focused on economic development, self-declared competition with Auckland and Tauranga, and expanded planning control.

In the preferred WRC future, a powerful region-wide council would set policy and priorities. Subsidiary community boards would implement the plans and provide basic services, while controlling such critical local decisions as library hours, Christmas decorations, and hourly swimming pool fees; think unitary, single-tier, amalgamated all-Waikato Council.

Lined up against big change are the region's districts. Most Waikato mayors favour the two-tier local government status quo but with increased efficiencies and cost-cutting through shared services and co-ordinated planning.

From his perch atop the informal Waikato Mayors Forum, Matamata-Piako Mayor Hugh Vercoe made it clear as recently as last month that council amalgamations are not on the cards for his group.

So far, the big exception is Hamilton City Council, which is on record supporting a unitary council for the wider economic and social catchment area of greater Hamilton. HCC's position is the only one so far that places logic and practicality above bureaucratic self-interest.

Hamilton residents and businesses have for years disproportionately shouldered huge infrastructure and service costs that in practice benefit all surrounding districts, given the city's position as an employment, commercial, educational and entertainment centre for the western Waikato.

Also favouring big change, on principle, are the four-strong Rates Control Team councillors at WRC.

The RCT is on record supporting single-tier local government, while remaining open to options for new council boundaries.

Where they depart sharply from the entrenched majority WRC voting bloc and most district mayors is their vocal support for eliminating the so-called "four well-beings" which have allowed such questionable spending as WRC's $11 million handout for the elite St Peters velodrome, or $38m for V8 petrolheads by HCC.

The Mayors Forum (also known as the Waikato Local Government Forum) has been uncharacteristically active and the main venue for political arm wrestling since its triennial reincarnation in March.

With no formal standing under the Local Government Act, the forum brings together Waikato mayors, the regional chair, and all council CEOs monthly.

It is addressing opportunities for operational co-operation and shared services but ruffling some feathers in the process.

One glaring problem is public accountability. While the forum is progressing work on water and wastewater, roading, planning and governance issues, it operates unofficially and behind closed doors.

Despite the fact that elected officials are making decisions and spending rates dollars, forum meetings are not open to the public.

Agendas and minutes are neither published nor available publicly.

Documents and other work product are not clearly subject to the Official Information Act as are those of councils. Yet official business is being carried out.

Some political push and pull has been revealed through internal WRC reports to its councillors, however.

After initially playing ball with the 'informal' Waikato Forum, WRC was spurned by other councils in its bid to get a unified forum position and submission on local government reform.

WRC was also unsuccessful in getting the forum to undertake regional economic development as a main priority.

In other words, WRC failed in its first attempts to get the Waikato forum to act like an all-Waikato council-in-the-making. Instead, district mayors have stuck to nuts and bolts projects.

Then there is the matter of turf. Minutes from last month's WRC policy committee meeting reveal 'there was concern that the forum was progressing work streams in parallel to the work already being undertaken by WRC'.

Trying to assert some control, regional councillors asked for clarification 'with regard to the forum's 'status', its meeting provisions, its decision making powers, its reporting requirements and how it linked back into WRC processes'.

Forum chairman Vercoe was scheduled 'to clarify' everything for tetchy WRC councillors last week but for some reason failed to make the agenda.

Since early winter, when the push for local government reform picked up momentum nationally, little has changed on the Waikato council game board. For the moment, it's wait-and-see until the Local Government and Environment select committee reports back on November 5 with its findings on pending government reform legislation.

Meanwhile, HCC wisely kept councillor numbers at 12 for the next election, maintaining its overall political weight. Across the river, WRC reinforced its political position by building in two Maori seats at the council table - hard to reverse in any amalgamation scenario.

- Hamilton News

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