Concern at lack of consultation

By Ilona Hanne

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To consult or not to consult was the subject under debate last Tuesday, when Stratford District council voted on adoption of the annual plan for 2016/17.

Amendments made to the Local Government Act in 2014 mean councils are not required to consult on an Annual Plan which does not include significant or material differences from the content of the Long Term Plan (LTP).

Of the 10 councillors present at the meeting, seven voted in favour of adopting the plan, while three voted against.

Rob Thomson was one of the councillors to vote against adopting the plan.

"It is appalling practice for council not to review the budget before moving it from a long-term plan to an annual plan," he said.

"I don't know of any business that would do this. While the changes to the Act mean you don't have to go and consult with the community, it doesn't mean you shouldn't do your due diligence."

"When you look at the local economy in the Stratford District, oil and gas along with dairy are having the toughest times in years.

There are farmers in Toko and Midhirst who are losing money every day.

"There are oil and gas workers in town who are facing decreased hours, meaning less income. So a 3.2 per cent rates increase is going to be substantial for these people."

"Ignoring this is not showing any leadership."

Reviewing the budget and consulting on the plan would have enabled council to look at ways to save ratepayers' money and demonstrate financial governance.

"My issue is the process."

It wasn't the lack of consultation that was the issue for councillor Kelvin Squire, who also voted against the adoption of the plan, but rather the lack of opportunity to have discussed it before the decision to adopt it was to be made.

"If I am going to vote for this, I want to know as much about it as possible," he said.

"While the plan is reflective of the LTP, it is not reflective, in my view, of the current economic climate of our area," he said.

The opportunity for councillors to have discussed the plan at a workshop before the council meeting would have been useful he says.

"There was no interface between staff and councillors before, then at a public meeting we are rubber stamping the most important document of the next 12 months. In my view, we missed an opportunity."

Despite voting against the adoption of the plan at the meeting, Kelvin says he will now give his full support to it. "I am a team player. A lot of work has gone into the plan and there is not too much in the plan I had a problem with. I will however, continue to argue that a change in process is needed."

John Sandford voted to adopt the plan and says he was happy to see it adopted at the meeting.

"Staff had done a very good job of producing the plan, and there were no surprises contained in it that would have merited further discussion."

Mayor Neil Volzke, who also voted in favour, says he doesn't believe the public are being denied an opportunity to have their say.

"We have consulted extensively with the public little more than six months ago in regards to the LTP on which this plan is based. I am comfortable that it was a robust and positive consultation process. We received 166 submissions on it, and given there has been no significant or material change since that time, it seems unnecessary to repeat that process now.

"By not repeating the process we are saving ratepayers around $60,000 in administration and audit costs. We will still deliver everything we agreed upon in the Long Term Plan."

"Councillor Thomson is quite wrong to say the budget hasn't been reviewed, when in fact council officers have reviewed the document. They only recommended some minor adjustments to fees but overall did not alter the budget significantly or change service levels.

"The statement that we have not looked at ways to save ratepayers money is completely unjustified. We all focus on this continuously."

Neil says discussing the document in a workshop in advance would not have changed the document itself.

"The recommendation not to consult (again) was raised at a workshop prior to Christmas. It's important to note that all decisions we make must be made in a public meeting, so nothing could have been changed by having a second workshop prior to the council meeting."

The LTP content is comprehensive, he said.

"While we start working on it well in advance, the content is continually tweaked along the way so the final figures are current at the time of it being adopted. From this, we have developed the annual plan, so the figures contained are neither out of date nor lacking in leadership as claimed."

During the council meeting, the two councillors questioned some of the figures relating to the council-owned farm. Neil says he disagrees that the change in projected income from the farm is significant for council as it makes up less than 0.5 per cent of councils total income.

"I accept the director of corporate services' comments that the variation is offset by a number of other factors, including increased milk production and lower than forecast interest rates. The payout reduction is also split between ourselves and the sharemilker, meaning it is lower than some councillors seemed to think."

Neil says he encourages robust debate at council meetings.

"The apparent fixation on the farm was a very narrow focus and it detracted from the real purpose of the discussion, which was setting the rates and outlining Council's projects for the next 12 months."

Are you happy with the decision? Did you want to be consulted? Did you make a submission to the Long Term Plan? Do you think your voice is heard?

Share your views - email editor@stratfordpress.co.nz or post a letter to editor, Stratford Press, PO Box 300, Stratford 4332. All letters must contain a name and contact details. Letters may be edited for length or style.

- Stratford Press

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