Sea change at new regional council

By Geoffrey Robinson, Reihana Robinson

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The centre of political gravity has shifted at Waikato Regional Council.

While attention since last week's election has focused on jockeying for leadership positions, the real story is that forces favouring expanded regional political control over local districts in the Waikato have been dealt a serious blow.

While falling short of an outright majority, Rates Control Team candidates took six out of 14 council seats, putting their group in a position to heavily influence the outcome of wide-ranging votes on council policy, budgets, and spending priorities.

Over the past three years, Rates Control councillors consistently opposed WRC expansion, advocating a return to delivery of basic core services while opposing sharp increases in staffing, council office space, and supersized grants like the unpopular $6m velodrome outlay.

On election night, RCT were undeniably the big winners. If anyone has a mandate from Waikato voters, it's this group.

Voters, meanwhile, decisively rejected the OneWaikato candidate slate, with only two of eight managing election.

The failed OW campaign was joined at the hip to the unelected Waikato Mayoral Forum, an informal group of regional mayors and chief executives pushing an all-Waikato economic development and spatial planning agenda that would trump city and district documents. The Mayoral Forum's undertakings point straight to an eventual region-wide supercouncil.

But popular opposition to expanded all-Waikato government was a major election issue and significant factor in the rout of OW candidates. The failure of OneWaikato foreshadows more limited influence for the three former Waikato mayors who grabbed seats on WRC, largely on the basis of simple name recognition.

The ex-mayors are each accustomed to running the show around their council tables, and each in his own way is a supporter of big regional government. New Cr Bob Simcock left a trail of budget deficits and mountainous debt at Hamilton City Council. Waipa's Alan Livingston helped engineer massive district and regional velodrome handouts. Hugh Vercoe of Matamata-Piako chairs the Mayoral Forum and is the main man pushing its all-Waikato power agenda.

Livingston and Vercoe gave up safe district mayor jobs on a bet that their local districts would soon be losing power to an expanded regional council and eventual supercity. Rather than defend their patches, they hopped on board the all-Waikato bandwagon. What they did not figure on was an expanded Rates Control group and a wider public that has picked up incoming supercity plans on their political radar.

Among the most significant results last Saturday was the election of filmmaker conservationist Clyde Graf in the Thames-Coromandel constituency.

Graf handily knocked off WRC deputy mayor and OneWaikato front man Simon Friar in a contest where local government reform options were front and centre.

Graf is a firm supporter of plans for a stand-alone unitary council to govern the Coromandel (or a similar grouping in Eastern Waikato) and a staunch opponent of any future attempt to impose a Hamilton-centred, uber-council on the entire region.

His win over Friar reflects broad popular discontent with WRC policies, planning, and on-the-ground operations considered inappropriate for, and unresponsive to the needs of, the Thames-Coromandel District.

It also signals that, unlike their counterparts at Greater Wellington Regional Council, who are fiercely opposing an independent stand-alone unitary council for that region's outlying Wairarapa districts, WRC may get realistic and accept that a separate council to govern the Eastern Waikato, as overwhelmingly supported by residents in that area, could be an appropriate local government reform option.

If not, RCT and Vercoe are on a collision course.

As happens every three years, the scramble for chairmanship, deputy and committee heads at WRC will be settled by deals and promises in advance of the council's first meeting on October 31.

While, as ex-mayors, the "Three Amigos" may think they have a claim to top-dog positions, their view is not shared by long-serving councillors who have paid their dues and amassed considerable regional council experience.

A newly invigorated and strengthened Rates Control group also does not expect to be sidelined.

To work an agenda or pass resolutions against RCT opposition, remaining councillors will need 100 per cent agreement - hard to maintain over a three-year long haul. With negotiations continuing this week, WRC leadership slots may be hanging in the balance. The balance of power, however, has already shifted.

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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