Northland's four councils are set to be merged into one Northland-wide unitary authority.
The new authority, to be called Northland Council, was announced by the Local Government Commission (LGC) in Waitangi yesterday. It will have nine councillors elected from seven wards with the mayor elected by the district as a whole.
The Northland Council will also have seven elected community boards and two Maori boards whose members will be appointed by iwi and councillors.
Unlike the local government reforms of 1989 and the formation of the Auckland Supercity, however, the LGC's proposal is not a done deal.
The draft plan is now open for submissions and once the final plan is ready Northlanders can force a binding poll. All that would be needed for a referendum is a petition signed by 10 per cent of registered voters in any one of Northland's three districts. In the Kaipara, for example, little more than 1200 signatures would be enough to trigger a region-wide vote.
LGC chairman Basil Morrison said the announcement was made in the Far North because the Far North District Council, along with iwi leaders, was the first out of the blocks when a law change made local government reform possible.
Former Mayor Wayne Brown and iwi leaders, however, wanted the current four councils merged into two unitary authorities: One following the Far North boundaries, the other merging Whangarei and Kaipara.
The proposal means that assets such as Northport will be shared but local debt - in particular from Mangawhai's sewerage scheme blowout - will be ringfenced so only the ''community of benefit'' will pay it off for the first six years. What happens to the debt after six years will depend on the council at the time.
Mr Morrison sad the LGC initially considered 10 options but rejected six as impractical. The four that were seriously considered were the status quo, an enhanced status quo, two unitary authorities and one unitary authority.
The LGC believed its proposal was the best option for democratic representation and improved economic performance. It would combine one council and one mayor, speaking with one voice for all of Northland, with a second tier of community boards. Community boards already exist in the Far North but not elsewhere in Northland.
The LGC could not propose Auckland-style local boards _ which have greater powers than community boards and cannot be abolished by the council _ because areas with a population less than 400,000 cannot have them under current law. That could change with an amendment to the Local Government Act due to be introduced to Parliament this week.
''The door is not entirely closed to local boards. It's a matter of watch this space,'' Mr Morrison said.
The new council would be headquartered in Whangarei with service centres in nine towns.
Public hearings will be held after submissions close on February 14. If the LGC gauges there is enough support it will prepare a final plan with elections in October 2015.
Mr Morrison said the new council would not necessarily reduce rates but ratepayers and businesses would only have to deal with one council.
It was not yet known how many jobs would be lost. The new council would be responsible for redundancies and other obligations of the outgoing councils.
He put the likely costs of the merger at $5-10 million, with ongoing savings of a similar amount each year.
Asked about Far North fears of being dominated by Whangarei, Mr Morrison said that was a concern in any area with a major urban centre. He believed it would be mitigated by the proposed ward structure which gave Whangarei and the Far North four votes each and Kaipara one.
''At the end of the day, one person, one vote is the basis of democracy,'' he said.
The LGC had not gone for the Far North's proposal for two unitary authorities because Northland would be stronger with one voice. There was also the problem of dividing up assets, harbours and river catchments.
Many of Northland's council and iwi leaders attended yesterday's announcement but their reactions were, like the meeting itself, subdued.
Whangarei Mayor Sheryl Mai said she would digest the proposal and the council would work out its position at its December meeting before making a submission.
Ms Mai said it was now up to the people of Northland to decide if they wanted a single unitary authority, but given the tight timeframe for submissions the council would not be able to poll residents on their views.
''But anybody can make submissions and it's up to us as a council to make sure people get the right information so they can make an informed decision and our submission as a council will be based on the feedback we get on the detail of the proposal,'' she said.
''And I'm sure there will be submissions made from people who want local boards [rather than community boards] as they have more statutory powers, and there's also the possibility of a referendum further down the line if enough voters want one.''
Far North Mayor John Carter said he needed time to study the proposal before making comment.
''As always, the devil's in the detail ... But on the surface the LGC have done their best to reflect community views and encapsulate an alternative to the status quo.''
Mr Carter said Northland leaders were determined to work together and foster a rational, not an emotional, debate.
He also warned against jumping to conclusions because the public could still opt for the status quo.
''Ultimately it's the decision of the people,'' he said.