A Northland local government leader says his participation in the Government's latest efforts to address major national concerns around Three Waters representation, governance and accountability have done nothing to quell his fears.
Kaipara Mayor Dr Jason Smith said after being part of the new working group set up by the Government, he still has concerns for New Zealand's democracy.
Smith, Northland Mayoral Forum chairman, was a member of the Government working group tasked with addressing Three Waters restructure sticking points for local government around future representation, governance and accountability.
"I participated in the working group in good faith. There is much that's good in this journey but at the end it's become clear to me that while there is a need for some kind of water system reform, this one fails to address the fundamental issue of funding investment in our infrastructure and seeks to adjust governance in a way that limits the ability of all people and communities to engage," Smith said.
"In light of this I don't support the direction of the reforms and believe … [they] ... are the wrong answer to the right question. At the end of all this journey I'm sad to say these Three Waters reforms get a 'yeah, nah' from me.''
Growing local government concern about representation, governance and accountability have seen the unprecedented startup of a new breakaway Communities for Local Democracy (C4LD) group of now 30 of New Zealand's 67 councils and representing 1.5 million people. KDC, FNDC and WDC are among the C4LD group.
Smith said his working group participation saw him change tack and now join Whangārei District Council (WDC), Far North District Council (FNDC) and Auckland Council in rejecting Three Waters participation.
Three Waters restructuring would see these four councils' drinking water, wastewater and stormwater functions merged into a giant top-of-New Zealand water services entity currently called entity A.
"I believed the reforms could be an opportunity for mana enhancement for councils and for iwi, that strengthening our democratic institutions is vital. I'm saddened that I believe the output of the working group does not seek to strengthen our democratic institutions or the work those institutions do with and for their people," Smith said.
Whangārei Mayor Sheryl Mai, who is a member of the C4LD oversight group, said the working group's recommendations to Government around dealing with the three sticking points of representation, governance and accountability simply made her council more determined in its High Court Three Waters challenge.
WDC is, along with Timaru and Waimakariri district councils, challenging the Government in the High Court in June over the concept of ownership in Three Waters.
"Our concerns remain regarding democratic accountability, and ownership rights and responsibilities which is why we are seeking clarification in the High Court," Mai said.
"The report from the working group was predictable, given the constraints placed on them in their terms of reference. Sadly, as we've maintained all along, the working group was hamstrung by the terms of reference. It's a triumph of process over substance."
Mai said the working group had paid little heed to the two alternative Three Waters models C4LD had submitted.
She said the working group had attempted to address ownership concerns with the concept of councils having public shares in the Three Waters entities.
"[But] even this small movement on the ownership side falls short of what is needed," Mai said.
"Whichever way you cut it this proposal remains, at its heart, simply a confiscation of community assets without compensation, everything else is window-dressing. This is simply not acceptable."
Far North Mayor John Carter reacted cautiously to news of the working group's recommendations that have now gone to Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta.
He said people needed to have their say in the restructuring which was not happening.
"For a start, there needs to be better community input into the programme," Carter said.
"There is definitely an infrastructure deficit. We all accept there needs to be improved water quality, but the question is how do you go about that and how is it funded? Until we understand that, it's a waste of time talking about it."
Mahuta said the Government would decide on where to next after considering the working group's report.
"We are committed to ensuring local councils continue to have a vital Three Waters role by representing the interests of their communities at the highest level of each new water services entity alongside mana whenua, and by owning these entities on behalf of their communities."