The public will have a chance to comment on whether an "h" should be added to Wanganui after the New Zealand Geographic Board this morning decided there was a valid case to change the name.
Wanganui Mayor Michael Laws reacted angrily, describing the decision as "morally and historically wrong".
The spelling of the city and district's name has long been subject to controversy and iwi group Te Runanga o Tupoho recently applied to change the name to Whanganui.
The iwi petitioned the New Zealand Geographic Board to change the name on the grounds that Wanganui was a meaningless word.
In a statement this morning, New Zealand Geographic Board chairperson Dr Don Grant said Wanganui was incorrectly spelt and had never been formally gazetted by the board or its predecessors.
"It is therefore not currently an official New Zealand place name," he said.
Dr Grant said early settlers clearly intended the name of the city to be derived from the Maori name of the river, and consistent modern usage of the language showed the spelling should be Whanganui, not Wanganui.
"While the Board acknowledges the historical transcription was based on the local pronunciation, the mechanics of standardising a previous unwritten language, together with its full meaning/translation, signal that the name was intended to be 'Whanganui'. This is about correcting a mistake made more than 150 years ago."
Dr Grant said it was the first time the board had received a proposal to change the name of a New Zealand city.
"This is an issue of great importance to many, so the Board felt it important to allow the New Zealand public a chance to comment."
A formal period of consultation will begin in six weeks and members of the public will then have three months to make submissions on the name change.
Mayor Laws said he would look at the possibility of holding a district-wide referendum following this morning's decision.
A 2006 referendum on the issue found 82 per cent of residents wanted to keep the "h" out of Wanganui.
Mayor Laws said the board's decision to "unilaterally" change the spelling of the city and district's name would "be resisted with all effort and endeavour by the Wanganui District Council and the vast majority of the citizens of Wanganui".
The move was a "direct attack" on 170 years of history, he said in a statement.
"The view of Wanganui citizens has been overridden by a few non-Wanganui people based in Wellington."
Wanganui councillors in February voted 8-5 to advise the board not to change the name.
Councillors who supported the motion argued Wanganui had assumed its own independent identity and integrity over the past 170 years, and that a significant majority of residents had voted against change in 2006.
Those who opposed the motion argued that Wanganui was misspelled, and that it was the right of Maori to assert the correct spelling of their language.
They said the majority did not have a right to impose its collective viewpoint upon a cultural minority.
In 1991 the Geographic Board changed the spelling of Wanganui River to Whanganui River, while the district health board also adopted Whanganui.
- NZPA and NZHERALD STAFF