Local government in Northland is in for a shakeup - so Far North residents need to make a stand for what they want or risk having Wellington impose something they don't.
That was the message from Mayor Wayne Brown and Ngati Hine leader Pita Tipene at a public meeting in Kawakawa about a proposed Far North unitary authority.
The merger of Auckland's one regional, three district and four city councils into a single authority has given the Government an appetite for local government reform. A bill now wending its way through Parliament will make future amalgamations easier, however the financial debacle at the Kaipara District Council is believed to have placed Northland in the Government's sights as a prime candidate for reform.
Mr Brown's fear is that all four councils - the Northland Regional, Far North, Whangarei and Kaipara district councils - could be merged into one Whangarei-centric authority, further marginalising the Far North.
That could also saddle all Northlanders with Mangawhai's massive debt.
With iwi leaders such as Ngai Takoto's Rangitane Marsden, Mr Brown has formed the Better Local Government in the Far North working group. The group is developing a proposal for a unitary authority in which the Far North District Council would keep its existing boundaries, but absorb the roles - and half the assets - of the regional council. The assumption is that Whangarei would merge with Kaipara to form a second authority.
A key element of the plan is to have three of the nine council seats set aside for Maori, one elected from each ward.
Mr Tipene said Maori made up 43 per cent of the Far North's population but were disengaged from local government.
"The status quo is unacceptable ... The Maori view of the world is not always reflected around the council table, and we want to change that," he said.
The Far North was poorly represented on regional issues, Mr Brown said.
"Decisions for the Far North should be made in the Far North by people of the Far North, but surprisingly few are."
Mr Brown cited a Deloitte report which found a Far North unitary authority would save ratepayers $11 million a year. That did not include income from Northport if it was split between Whangarei and the Far North instead of going to the regional council.
Some in Tuesday's audience, however, were sceptical. Community board member Johnson Davis queried the proposal's lack of financial detail; others questioned whether it made sense to develop a proposal before anyone knew where Parliament was heading with its local government reforms.
But Mr Brown said waiting to see what happened was not an option.
"The Government's going to do something about us because Kaipara has crapped in everyone's nest. We can frame the debate or we can sit on our hands and let someone else make the decisions. I think the best people to make decisions about this district are the people who are already in it," he said.
Attempts to set up a Far North unitary authority in 1994 and 2008 failed.