As a newbie on the Napier City Council, it has been a fascinating introduction to local body politics.
I started off disillusioned with the election process, where apathy reigns supreme. Before I was elected, acquaintances would complain about the city being run behind closed doors.
The feeling was that they couldn't influence the council anyway, even if they wanted to.
What I have been part of so far this term is the complete opposite. While briefings are held behind closed doors, the actual decision-making process for all major issues is open to the public, with the agendas and papers on the council website.
We can be influenced by anyone who makes an effort to tell us what they are thinking. Unfortunately, it seems that 99 per cent of the population don't bother.
One way we try to obtain your thoughts and opinions is to run stands and "pop up shops" in public spaces.
Sadly, there is an overwhelming reluctance by the members of the public to approach us and discuss the issues. We end up having to pounce on passers-by to try to glean an opinion.
Similarly, as far as council mail-outs and information brochures are concerned, people generally say they didn't receive anything, which indicates it ended up in the recycling bin without being looked out. It is always refreshing when people say they have read it.
The numbers at the public meetings are tiny as a percentage of the population and they are usually the same passionate people.
We do use digital media, which seems to have a bit more success, but given the responses of the people we accost on the streets I fear it is not necessarily the majority opinion we are tapping into. What I would like to know is how do we engage with the majority?
The press have their role to play, too, and while they tend to sensationalise a comment made by a councillor (often out of context), report on only a portion of the items discussed and often give an unbalanced view of a debate, they are a valuable way of getting some of the council activities out there to the public.
I often read feedback through the papers where the partially informed have had a crack at the decisions we have made, when they clearly have not read the whole article that caused the reaction. Hard to take that sort of feedback seriously.
Soon the Local Government Commission will release its final proposal for amalgamation and councillors will be unable to comment.
The amalgamation issue is not an easy one. Parochialism is the real enemy here. Napier and Hastings are so intertwined with work, emergency services and sports that it does make sense to get rid of the duplication and have consistency in the way they deal with the public and industry.
Seeing the resistance to the cities working together on the core issues is frustrating (although this is starting to shift) and the anti-amalgamation arguments are not that convincing to me.
But I realise that at the end of the day local government is driven by people. Have good people in the political arena and good things can happen.
If we amalgamate we will be able to focus as a region, be consistent in our policies and dealings, and be seen as unified at a national level.
But what if, in a few years' time, we get the wrong leaders, or the council becomes dysfunctional through personalities, or the incumbent leader starts to lose motivation and becomes stale? This could affect the whole region.
What I would like to see is all the services and core functions of the councils amalgamated (including tourism and economic development) and the leadership/council structures stay as they are.
I believe we should also make the boundary adjustments suggested by the Napier City Council, in that the Hastings area north of Napier folds into the Napier electorate.
Each city would gather its own income, set the big-picture policy and budgets, and then contract the work out to the central organisation. The over-arching vision for the region could be led by central government, with an MP representing the one electorate of Hawke's Bay (instead of the split electorates we now have).
No doubt this isn't a workable solution for reasons I am yet to understand and it is certainly not expected to be the proposal that will be put forward to us.
As a final note, I would like to acknowledge the effort being put in by our Napier Mayor, Bill Dalton. There is no denying his commitment to his role and driving mantra to prevent amalgamation. He has no hidden agendas and encourages debate around the table.
As mayor, you get slammed regularly by people who are not fully informed and journalists who need to sell papers but it hasn't dampened his resolve and enthusiasm.
And, no, I don't need any Brownie points, I just want the readers who are still reading this to realise that his council thinks he is doing all right.
-Mark Hamilton is a Napier City Ward Councillor