Robinson Report: Time for public say

By Reihana Robinson, Geoffrey

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Though off to a messy start, the process of restructuring local government in the Waikato is officially under way.

For months, councils including Waikato Regional, Hamilton City and other districts have been privately "workshopping" reform options out of the media spotlight, hoping to identify preferred outcomes and developing strategy without going public.

With Government legislation looming and public discontent at fever pitch, major change is a foregone conclusion.

The failed two-tier status quo is always officially an option. But everyone from the local postie to the prime minister knows single-level unitary councils will emerge as the preferred model across New Zealand.

The only questions are how many new unitary councils in each region and where boundaries should be established.

Lighting a political match in the Waikato last month was the presentation to Thames-Coromandel District Council of the first 1000 signatures on a citizen-initiated petition seeking a single-tier local council for that area.

Like unitary authorities in Gisborne, Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough, an Eastern Waikato council would combine the present functions of district and regional councils - including those of WRC.

The citizens' campaign for a Coromandel unitary council commands broad and growing public backing. TCDC councillors are supportive, and Mayor Glenn Leach recently revealed his intention to explore the idea, including detailed costings.

Mayor Leach has a clear public mandate and would have a strong case for a unitary authority if the numbers come out even remotely close.

In response, panicky WRC boss Peter Buckley quickly ruled out the idea. In doing so, he clumsily tipped his WRC hand in favour of an all-Waikato supercouncil, an outcome vehemently opposed by the general public and councillors in the Eastern Waikato, including TCDC Mayor Leach.

Buckley's self-interested sales pitch is that any new unitary council needs "scale and clout" to "compete" with Auckland.

And this is exactly where the WRC chairman has lost the plot. The Eastern Waikato, and Thames-Coromandel in particular, is not part of that competition and doesn't want a bar of it.

Residents there insist they do not want to continue as a "rates mine" for WRC and big Hamilton business interests.

Although WRC has not officially put forth any preferred option, Buckley stated bluntly he opposes "splitting our region into multiple unitaries". That's as good as saying, "We will soon propose a single all-Waikato unitary supercouncil."

Should he and his loyal councillor group stymie democratic aspirations of the Eastern Waikato, it would likely result in a political firestorm.

Events of recent weeks in Wellington, however, provide practical guidance to political planners here. A discussion document from Wellington City Council has asked the region's residents to consider four local government options.

One choice is the status quo, with existing regional, city and district councils. A second option is a single unitary supercouncil for the entire region. The other options would split Wellington region into either two or three separate unitary councils, reflecting on-the-ground economic, geographic and social affinities.

The Wairarapa (comprising Carterton, Masterton, and South Wairarapa districts) is the odd region out in greater Wellington - much like Thames-Coromandel in the Waikato.

Last month, a review panel appointed by Greater Wellington Regional Council unsurprisingly came out in favour of a single all-Wellington supercouncil.

But just last week at a hui of nine Wellington region councils, the GWRC plan was flatly rejected. In its place, the region's mayors and CEOs indicated their strong support for a separate stand-alone Wairarapa unitary authority. A report from the Wairarapa Governance Working Party advancing this option was well received.

Wellington City Council staff have also backed the two unitary council model - one for the Wairarapa and a second for Wellington City, the Hutt, Kapiti and Porirua.

It's time for Hamilton's business and political leadership to take a cue from their capital colleagues.

As in Wellington, the boundaries of any new Hamilton Council should reflect the natural economic, geographic and social catchments of Greater Hamilton - and no further. Councillors at HCC recognise this; the Property Council of NZ Waikato branch recognises this; so do residents in the Eastern Waikato who have been dealing for years with inappropriate policy made hours away at WRC headquarters.

While an entrenched regional council may seek to maximise geographic reach and rates income potential, the ability of greater Hamilton to achieve its own goals would in fact be hampered in the long run by supercouncil over-reach and the resulting built-in conflict.

Should the Waikato be governed by two unitary councils or three unitary councils? The politicians have had their closed-door sessions, and the options are limited and obvious. It's time to bring the public into the discussion.

robinsonsreport@gmail.com.

- Hamilton News

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