Northlanders will this year pay out more than $3 million for the political leaders they have elected to helm Northland's $566 million-plus local government spending budget.

Their rates will pay $3,019,139 in remuneration for local body politicians elected to office just over a month ago. The 42 politicians comprise three mayors, a chair and 38 councillors elected on October 12 to make local government flourish in the North.

That's $251,594 a month (or $58,060 a week) for the 2019/2020 financial year to helm council democracy from Cape Reinga to near Te Hana on State Highway 1 just north of Wellsford – an area of almost 180,000 people across 12,500 sq km.

Whangarei District Council (WDC) tops the billing with $971,063 in politicians' remuneration, Far North District Council (FNDC) is next with $862,201, Northland Regional Council (NRC) is third with $707,451 and Kaipara District Council (KDC) fourth with $478,424.



Far North District mayor John Carter with popular new Kaikohe-Hokianga ward councillor Moko Tepania
Far North District mayor John Carter with popular new Kaikohe-Hokianga ward councillor Moko Tepania

John Carter, Far North mayor and Northland member on the national Local Government New Zealand Council said $3m was a realistic figure given the size of Northland's local government budget.

"A huge amount of effort is put in by elected representatives and they need to be recognised for that," he said.

More than $500,000 of the money Northlanders stump up - $556,500 – will go to the region's four council leaders' remuneration.

Whangarei Mayor Sheryl Mai tops this with $156,000, John Carter receives just less than that with $155,000, regional council chairwoman Penny Smart $126,500 and Kaipara Mayor Jason Smith $119,000.

Meanwhile, Northlanders will also put up $2,462,639 across the region for the remaining 38 councillors' remuneration.


Whangarei's 13 councillors will get $815,063, Far North's nine councillors $707,201, the regional council's eight councillors $580,951 and Kaipara's eight councillors $359,424.

The 17 members of FNDC's three community boards will receive a further $153,854.

Elected representatives' remuneration is set by the Government's remuneration authority, which requires all its remuneration allocations to be paid out to elected representatives.

Mai said remuneration setting was based on the authority's extensive knowledge of this area from throughout New Zealand.

Urgent $1.4 million Dargaville wastewater sludge removal planned

Northlanders have entrusted councillors with governing the management of millions of dollars of public money.

Northland's four councils will spend $566,632,000 in the 2019/2020 financial year – WDC $230,895,000; FNDC $189,700,000; KDC $79,839,000 and NRC $66,198,000.

Capital expenditure amounts to about 34 per cent of that FNDC spending, about 40 per cent of KDC's, about 36 per cent of WDC's and about 25 per cent of NRC's spending.

About 1000 people work across Northland's four councils - the organisations' combined 2019/2020 $367,485,000 operational spending split between WDC $147,561,000; FNDC $126,000,000, KDC $44,470,000, and NRC $49,454,000.

Kaipara mayor Jason Smith.
Kaipara mayor Jason Smith.

Provincial Growth Fund money is being used as part of KDC's spending this financial year. It's contributing $8,207,000 to KDC's budget - $3,337,000 on operational spending and $4,870,000 on capital spending.

The PGF-sourced operational spending will be split with $980,000 for feasibility work around a Kaipara Kai district mapping of where future new crops might grow as climate change's impacts build, $950,000 on feasibility work for developing and strengthening the Northern Wairoa wharves' network and upgrading, with Te Roroa, the Waipoua settlement road.

PGF-sourced capital spending includes $1.640,000 spent to develop Dargaville's Kaipara Harbour pontoon and $3,230,000 on roading work on eight of the district's 370 bridges to bring them up to standard for the trucking industry's heavier, bigger trucks.

Jason Smith, KDC mayor and Northland Mayoral Forum chairman, said the opportunity for local democratic elections was important for regional success.

This opportunity had not always been the case for KDC.

KDC not long ago went without democratically elected representation for four years while commissioners were put in place (from 2012 to 2016), to sort out the council's financial situation after massive cost blowouts from the Mangawhai sewerage scheme.

This was New Zealand's longest local government commissioner tenure; the commissioners' brief to focus on council debt reduction rather than more general local governance roles.

Smith said not having local elected representation was a dark time for Kaipara.

Northland's local government governance was now in good health.

"We're now coming back to transmission-as-normal for local government in Northland,"
Smith said.

Whangārei mayor Sheryl Mai
Whangārei mayor Sheryl Mai

Much had remained undone over that time as a result. The implications of this time were still being felt in Northland's local government today.

Smith said the strength of Northland's local government representation had helped Kaipara during this time and was still doing so today.

KDC's first post-commissioners' election was in 2016, its second in October this year.

Carter said Northland had strong, cohesive local government.

"We (Northland local government elected representatives) now have a team of people who can work together constructively. This is vital for Northland," Carter said.

Smart said councils in the region were working collaboratively, with frequent catchups between mayors and chairwoman.

The more than $300m Provincial Growth Fund money which had come to Northland was an indicator of the success of this way of doing things.

"We wouldn't have got that without our collaborative approach," Smart said.

Mai described the joint approach as beneficial.

"We work together for the common goal of a prosperous, thriving and vibrant region," Mai said.

Smart said one way Northlanders could check out elected representatives' performance was to look at how forecast achievements were tracking against key performance indicators (or equivalent), outlined in organisations' long term plans. This progress was monitored throughout the financial year.

"(In NRC's case) positive things that are happening with our Northland environment are evidence councillors are working properly at a governance level," Smart said.

Governance and representation were the key components of elected representatives' work.

The Northland mayors and chairwoman said it was important for Northlanders to play their part in participating in local government.

Northland's four councils are among New Zealand's 78 local authorities - 11 regional councils and 67 territorial authorities.

Interactive graphic designed by Chris Knox

Democracy; room for improvement

Northland's democratic process has room for improvement says University of Melbourne student Abby Kerr (22) from Whangarei.

"The democratic process is working in Northland, but like in any bureaucratic democratic process, there is always room for improvement," Kerr said.

"I'm very proud to come from Northland – but there is a lot of work to be done."

Kerr is doing an Executive Master of Arts at Melbourne University - after completing a Bachelor of Arts double major in Political Science and Media and Communications at the University of Canterbury.

She said the money being spent on Northland local government politicians' remuneration was reasonable for 42 elected representatives, and the amount of work they put into the role.

But she qualified this, saying it depended to a degree on how each individual councillor performed.

Kerr said the role of Northland's local government in the democratic process needed to be better understood.

"In a community like ours in Northland, and in this day and age, our politics, our councillors and what's happening in our democracy should be better known," Kerr said.

Better and new forms of communication were needed to help make sure people were aware of how local democracy was progressing, their elected politicians and what they were achieving.

This was particularly the case with younger people.

"No doubt, there's quite a lot of data about who is doing what and what's happening. We need better ways to get people interested in that information.

"Most people my age might struggle even to name their local mayor."

More, improved social media use - including Instagram and Facebook - was an option for better communicating with youth and young people

Local democracy education in Northland schools would help educate the younger generation.

"Regional elections are quite difficult to get younger people, in particular, involved in."

Northland local government needed to create a community that was as strong as other parts of New Zealand.

"We should be aiming for economically and socially developing our region so people my generation have something to come back to."

"I'm a proud Northlander, I am looking forward to coming back here," she said.

Kerr said healthy local democracy needed council membership to be regularly refreshed - with a desirable refresh rate of 50 per cent.

The word on the street

Views on Northland's local government remuneration.

Maureen Lancaster, (KDC)

Dargaville pensioner and book exchange volunteer: The sort of money our local representatives are getting is okay if they work hard for the community. I will know the council is performing when I see practical results such as the new Northern Wairoa River pontoon in Dargaville. This will link Kaipara communities and bring more people to Dargaville and surrounding districts. Council must set a prudent budget and stick to it.

Karen Morgan, 48 (KDC)

Dargaville office administrator: The cost of Kaipara democracy seems a lot. I expect to see Kaipara District Council operating within budget and doing what it says it's going to do. Elected representatives should be listening. Council operations should be well managed. We all know what's happened in Kaipara in recent times. I don't want to see us going into debt again.

May Seager, 55 (KDC)

Maungaturoto-based manager for Whangarei-based Fale Pasifika Te Tai Tokerau: The $3m sounds like a lot of money to spend, but spread geographically over the whole region; if that means we get good representation for the whole area then it's worth it. It's difficult for us as Northlanders to monitor whether elected representatives' performance is effective. We need to get more information from our councils to know what they are doing. We need more media information, independent of councils, that lets ratepayers know what's going on and helps provide information for Northlanders to assess whether or not our local body politicians are doing a good job. There are more than 5000 people in Northland who identify as Pasifika. There is room for service improvement for the sector. This is one of the lenses I will be using to assess the performance of local democracy in the North.

Stephen Sole 54 (KDC)

Mamaranui sharemilker: I want to see the Kaipara mayor and elected representatives getting results. We'll monitor how the council is performing by seeing the good things that are happening around town. We need to clean up the Dargaville central business district, make the town more presentable.

Rob Cleaver, 60 (FNDC)

Kāretu, Bay of Islands, flooring contractor: The $3 million is a fair price for democracy. It seems a bit low because they are handling a lot of money and they should be making decent decisions. I think it's actually pretty low to put in full effort for people.

Kevin Lisle, 56 (FNDC)

Kaitaia beef farmer: The $3 million is not so bad, as long as they do something. I'd like to see councillors being a bit more proactive. In the Far North it would be good to see more money staying north of the Mangamukas rather than going to Kerikeri.

John Groves, 84 (WDC)

Whangarei retiree, former Greymouth local government candidate and Whangarei Marina Trust member: The cost of Northland democracy sounds awful on the face of it – but maybe that's the price of democracy, and what's the alternative? In order to earn their keep, I expected elected representatives to listen to their constituents. The success of Northland local government can be measured by the mood of the region's population. The Whangarei Mayor's honorarium is okay, within reason.

Joanne Pou, 47, Ngapuhi (WDC)

Whangarei support worker: Three million dollars is a lot of money for our local democracy in Northland. Council achieving the things it says it will do in its Long Term Plan is the way I will see whether they are performing. We need to see local problems such as roads, jobs and youth wellbeing being dealt with. Local government in Northland seems to just roll along. I will be keeping tabs on each of our councillors.