The controversial issue of establishing a separate Maori seat on the Tauranga City Council could end up being put to the public vote.

Tauranga's Tangata Whenua Collective of Maori iwi and hapu has agreed to take the initiative after the council recently voted against establishing a Maori ward for the 2016 election.

The collective has decided to take up the public's right to demand a poll on the issue by obtaining support from 5 per cent of the city's electors. If the collective succeeds in getting the signatures of 4237 enrolled city voters then the council will have to run a referendum on the issue, costing $170,000.

Tangata Whenua Collective deputy chairwoman Matire Duncan said the collective voted unanimously to initiate a poll on the Maori ward. "We had a good talk about it and then everybody put their hand up and said 'Yes, let's do it'."

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Ms Duncan said the collective was showing unity and it was now up to each member to canvass people on the electoral roll to reach the 5 per cent threshold for a referendum. "We have a lot of work ahead of us."

She said the collective did not see that having a Maori ward was likely to cause separatism. "We are trying to keep this as positive as possible."

Ms Duncan said raising the 5 per cent of signatures was achievable. She agreed that if they succeeded in forcing a referendum, the response might be bigger than for council elections. The council had made a lot of assumptions that having a Maori ward would create divisions but those divisions had been around in Tauranga for a long time.

"I have been getting a lot of encouragement from non-Maori," she said.

The collective was drafting the petition for a referendum and it had until February 28 next year to achieve the 5 per cent.

Tauranga City Council member Gail McIntosh said the collective had made a bad decision. "I think it is a backward step. That's my take on it."

Even if the collective reached the 5 per cent threshold needed for a referendum, the answer would come back overwhelmingly 'no', she said.

Cr McIntosh said the public did not want a Maori ward and she was surprised at how annoyed the collective had been at the 9-0 council decision against the ward.

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"We are reflecting the views of the total community, and that is for one person, one vote.

"I am surprised they are doing it. I don't think they are reading their own community very well. The vast majority of the whole community are against it."