A new Far North District Council philosophy for dealing with rates on land in multiple Maori ownership is ironing out the district's $28 million accumulated unpaid rates debt and improving opportunities for getting undeveloped Maori land into production.
In a rare move for a local government leader, Far North Mayor John Carter appeared in the Maori Land Court at Kaitaia on Monday supporting Maori landowners who had led the way with the council's new stand on Maori rates and now want to form an ahu whenua trust.
Mr Carter told Judge David Ambler the council had found rating charges were unfairly applied to land in multiple Maori ownership and legislative changes could be required to stop over-charging Maori.
Attorney-General and Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson and Local Government NZ were taking an interest in Far North action on Maori land, which in the past few months had resolved rating issues with more than 50 blocks and could clear problems with another 50 before Christmas, Mr Carter said. "It's a win-win situation for the owners and the community."
The mayor described the new policy of discussing rates with Maori instead of adding to the $28 million of uncollectable "Monopoly money" accumulating on the council books as "significant in the history of our nation".
Despite Mr Carter imploring prompt action and landowners pleading for it, Judge Ambler was cautious about approving the application to form the Ngakahu ahu whenua trust covering 11 of the 12 titles in the 185ha Okahu block at Kaitaia.
The application was supported by all but a few of the 280 landowners involved - about 40 of whom had travelled from as far as Wellington.
The owners wanted a decision on the planned trust because they had held three hui in Kaitaia and Auckland to comply with directions given by the judge last November and in January this year. Negotiations with the FNDC had settled long outstanding rates and the owners wanted to move into the future united as an ahu whenua trust, ending divisions which had separated most of the whanau from their land for more than 50 years.
But Nicholas Te Paa, of Christchurch, a majority shareholder in the 12th Okahu title - not included in the trust application - and named on other titles had sought an adjournment, questioning the legality of the application.
Judge Ambler said the court promoted ahu whenua trusts, but had to make sure all owners received proper consideration. His queries about the hui, proxy voting and the trust application were answered by Ngakahu interim management committee members Des Mahoney and Te Uri Reihana-Ngatote.
When the judge asked if any owners opposing the trust formation were present, Valentine Taylor stood to say he knew nothing about the trust, but later disclosed he had attended a hui and there was evidence he was told of another.
A hint by the judge that he could adjourn the hearing so Mr Te Paa and Mr Taylor could talk to the court drew a strong objection from Ajun Ahoy, who said Mr Te Paa had attended two hui and both objectors had opportunities to air their concerns.
When the judge asked why there was a need for urgency, Mr Carter said Muriwhenua tribes were expected to get many thousands of hectares of land returned for Treaty settlements. The Ngakahu case was a council template for Maori land rating issues and, if it was held up, the rating programme affecting settlement land could be delayed.
The Rev Pereniki Tauhara said the council had released Ngakahu owners from rates bondage and the Maori Land Court should also release them from bondage.
"Our people have been begging for a long time. We are making history here today," he said, supporting the application so landowners could lead their mokopuna into the future.
Judge Ambler said he would make his decision in chambers tomorrow. He wanted written minutes of the first two hui, for which he had audio records.