Far North residents will be asked next year whether they want Maori seats on the district council.
At an extraordinary meeting late last year, councillors agreed to hold a poll - most likely at the same time as the 2013 local election - about setting up Maori wards and dedicated Maori seats around the council table.
They also agreed in principle to create a Maori Standing Committee, which will be discussed in more detail later this year (a decision on the Maori wards poll was more urgent because of a November 2011 deadline set by the Local Electoral Act).
However, councillors decided their first priority should be to pursue a Far North unitary authority - a single local authority combining the roles of the district and regional councils - which would include Maori representation. If no progress is made on a unitary authority by mid-2012, the council will start consulting the public about creating Maori wards for the district council instead.
A "robust information process" would be needed before the poll to make sure people could make an informed decision, a council report stated.
Holding the poll at the same time as the 2013 local elections would cost ratepayers a lot less than a stand-alone poll.
But it would mean the earliest chance to vote for Maori representatives - if voters back the idea - would be at the 2016 local elections.
The boundaries for any Maori wards or the number of seats set aside for Maori at the council table have yet to be discussed.
The options could include each of the three council wards; electing one Maori representative; drawing separate boundaries for the Maori wards to reflect iwi affiliations; or a single, district-wide ward electing Maori representatives.
Councillors did decide, though that candidates for the Maori wards would not be restricted to people on the Maori electoral roll. All Far North residents would be able to vote in the poll.
The Far North has two Maori district councillors, Tracy Dalton of Kaikohe and Awanui's Mate Radich.
Mrs Dalton, of Ngati Kahu ki Whangaroa descent, said she was pleased with the council's willingness to engage Maori in the decision-making process.
But to make Maori representation work the council also needed a Maori Standing Committee with real clout, like that set up by the new Auckland Council. Such a committee would make recommendations to the council and give Maori a proper channel to influence decision making, rather than just satisfying political ambitions.
The problem with Maori representatives at the council table was that they could always be out-voted.
Mrs Dalton said the current Kaikohe-Hokianga and Bay of Islands-Whangaroa community boards were starting to engage Maori at grassroots level, by attending Takiwa meetings, which bring together Ngapuhi marae representatives, and encouraging marae to take part in the Annual Plan process.
"It hasn't moved as fast as it could, but they're starting to get a bit of traction," she said.
Only one local authority, the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, has adopted the system of Maori seats provided for in the Local Electoral Act. A study found it was operating successfully.
According to the 2006 Census, 40 per cent of the Far North's 55,845 people are Maori.