A Tauranga councillor says Government moves to change the law on Māori wards is "fascist" and divisive.
Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced on Monday the Government would change the law that allows a council's decision to introduce a Māori ward to be overturned by a local poll.
Instead, the process to establish a Māori ward would become the same as the one to establish a general ward.
At the time she said diversity around the council table was important and specific Māori seats could help with this.
Tauranga City Council's decision last year to create a Māori ward was in the process of being challenged under the current legislation, with a petition obtaining enough support to demand a poll.
Former councillor John Robson voted against establishing a Māori ward for Tauranga City Council last year.
He said he had also cast votes to put Māori representatives on council committees but, in his view, the Minister's move on wards was a "mistake".
"I believe this is ill-considered and takes us down a bad path ... It is fascist and an abuse of power and even worse than that, it is not going to deliver results."
He said Parliament has had Māori seats for decades and Māori statistics were still "shocking". The idea that this move would make a difference for Māori was "facile".
The argument that it would make ward establishment processes equal was a "false equivalence", in his view.
A seat based on ethnicity was "very different" to a geographic ward and this had been recognised by the Labour Government when the original legislation was written, he said.
"It's the only type of ward for which you can't qualify yourself."
Former councillor Jako Abrie, who resigned before the commission was appointed, who voted to introduce a Māori ward, said New Zealand was founded on a partnership and it should honour that partnership.
He said the Government's move to make the legislation equal for establishing a Māori ward and general wards was a "brilliant first step".
In a statement on Sunday, Mahuta said having different rules for Māori and general wards created an "uneven playing field" that needed to change.
"The process of establishing a ward should be the same for both Māori and general wards. These are decisions for democratically elected councils, who are accountable to the public every three years.
"Polls have proven to be an almost insurmountable barrier to councils trying to improve the democratic representation of Māori interests. This process is fundamentally unfair to Māori.
"Increasing Māori representation is essential to ensuring equity in representation and to provide a Māori voice in local decision making. It will also lead to greater Māori participation in the resource management process," Mahuta said.
She said diversity around the council table was important and, like in Parliamentary elections, specific Māori seats could help with this.
The Government is planning staged reforms.
The Department of Internal Affairs said yesterday the Government intended to pass the Bill by the end of February, including a short select committee process where the public could have a say.
"Passing the Bill on this timeframe will minimise the costs to councils, like Tauranga, where poll demands have already been lodged."
Transitional provisions would enable all councils, regardless of any previous decisions or poll outcomes on a Māori ward, to consider establishing Māori wards for the 2022 local elections before 2021.
That means the future of a Māori ward in Tauranga could wind up in the hands of its new commission.
Mahuta last year decided to replace Tauranga City Council's elected members with a Government-appointed commission, which is due to be in place from Tuesday next week.
Stuart Crosby, president of Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) and a former Tauranga mayor, said the city's Māori wards decision now lay in the commissioners' hands.
"It will now fall in the hands, in my view, of the commissioners to decide how they will proceed, either to carry on what the elected members wished of the day, or not to establish a Māori ward," he said.
Asked whether the commission should take heed of the petition, he said they should take into account all community viewpoints.
He said the change in law should also bring a change in the process councils used to make decisions about Māori wards. He said councils had tended to be "ambushed" by the decision when it came around every six years as required by law.
"All of a sudden a paper shows up on an agenda, you have to consider do you support a Māori ward or don't you, and that's when positions are taken and lines are drawn and it tends to go down from there, rather than giving good lead-in time to engage with the community, including iwi, on the issue.
"That instantly creates an adversarial approach with the community, and it's not good decision making."
He understood why some petitioners would be upset with the Government's decision.
"They entered a process in good faith and that the law permits and that would now be taken away from them. There will be some grumpy people around New Zealand, that's for sure."
He said LGNZ supported having an equal process for establishing wards and constituencies, so the polling provision should either be removed or applied to all wards.
Warwick Lampp, an independent electoral officer for the Tauranga City Council, said the next steps for the referendum would depend on how quickly the Government's first phase of legislation was introduced.
He said the next steps in the referendum process were a public notice of poll and opening the electoral roll for 28 days.
Lampp estimated the cost of those steps to be $2000-$3000. If the process was halted by new legislation, another public notice would be required.
A full referendum would cost an estimated $220,000.