Whangārei Mayor Sheryl Mai is urging the Government to take a Three Waters counter proposal being put forward by 24 councils seriously.
Under Three Waters, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta wants to amalgamate the water services of 67 councils into four regional water entities - the proposal is controversial because it is compulsory, effectively forcing councils to relinquish ownership of their water pipes and reservoirs.
The alternative proposal would wipe the giant inter-regional mega water service entities (WSEs) being proposed to address particular issues with New Zealand's drinking water, wastewater and stormwater in favour of smaller, simpler options.
Whangārei District Council, along with Kaipara and Far North district councils, is among the 24-council Communities 4 Local Democracy – He hapori mō te Manapori (C4LD) group. It has more than $60 billion in three waters assets and represents a million people nationwide. The new group was set up in mid-December in opposition to the Government's Three Waters plans.
Mai's comments come ahead of C4LD next week presenting its alternative proposal in Wellington to a Three Waters working party set up by the Government at the start of December.
"We expect the working party to look at the alternative proposal, see merit in it and recommend it to the Government," Mai said.
"It's a better model for New Zealanders because its direct accountability is much closer to consumers, closer to local democracy."
C4LD has proposed two council-public ownership and governance options in a 32-page Castalia report "Improving three waters regulatory regime". The group represents 36 per cent of New Zealand's 67 councils, including the metropolitan centres of Whangārei and Christchurch. Mai is on its six-council oversight group.
The government working party was set up to address growing national opposition to the governance, representation and accountability components of its Three Waters plans which have become sticking points threatening to derail its restructure. The working party is required to report back to the Government by February 28.
"The best outcome for all New Zealanders will come from combining the best of local and national assets, knowledge, expertise and funding in genuine partnership rather than unilaterally imposing a solution that can't provide the required water services at least cost," Mai said.
WDC in June last year became the first council in New Zealand to opt out of the reform plans.
Mai said the C4LD alternative would result in improved public ownership and governance that in turn provided more direct accountability to consumers in Northland and across New Zealand.
"In both partner-council options the improved models remove the multi-layered governance and appointment systems in the Government's current proposal for four mega water service entities," she said.
Either of the two options could be used to suit the many different situations facing what were highly localised three waters provision needs across New Zealand.
"One size does not fit all," she said.
One C4LD option is council-owned regional organisations. Local authorities would own shares in these and remain democratically accountable to voters and water customers.
The regional organisation would have appointment rights for its board. It would own and manage the three waters service for the region.
The other is a council owned-model plus regulation. This means amending the local authority-owned and operated model and adding in new controls to address financing, funding constraints and enforcement mechanisms via water quality, environmental and economic regulators.
Mahuta was asked how seriously the Government would take C4LD's alternative proposals as a way of resolving opposition to the governance representation and accountability components of its nationwide restructure.
A spokesperson for Mahuta said the Government would carefully consider recommendations made by the working group - as well as from the public through the select committee process – before any decisions were made on potential changes.
The spokesperson said the Government had already proposed a number of three waters changes to representation, governance and accountability after local government consultation input last year.
Mai said three waters provision was challenging.
"Getting water safely into homes, businesses, marae and everywhere else is a complex challenge that can't be solved just by adding a layer of complex management on top of what's already in place," Mai said. The same applied for wastewater services.
Mahuta's spokesperson said the Three Waters reforms provided for councils and communities to have an important part in oversight and strategy through their role on the new entities' regional representative groups. Each entity also had to set up consumer forums and do annual engagement stock takes.
Mai said a more direct relationship was required between customers, voters and those tasked with WSE governance and management.
"The Government's current proposed governance and accountability methods are all replaced with simple democratic accountability of elected councillors. This would be supported by a regulatory regime which sets and enforces minimum quality standards, environmental outcomes and economic performance benchmarks," Mai said.
"In both options, the improved models remove the multi-layered governance and appointment systems, as well as the competing priorities in performance accountability."