Northland Regional Council chair Penny Smart has "set the record straight" regarding the role those elected to the council via dedicated Māori seats will play.
The council has voted to formally introduce Māori seats for the 2022 local body elections, guaranteeing Māori a voice around the council table in a move seen as an important expression of the NRC's commitment to tāngata whenua. Smart said the decision also brought the council into line with the approach being taken by central government and an increasing number of other local bodies around the country, including three of Northland's four councils.
Given that more than a third of Northland's population was Māori, the move would only strengthen the existing Māori/council partnership. It would also enable the council to better reflect Māori values, issues, priorities and aspirations as they related to council roles and functions, and help it better reflect the needs and aspirations of the entire community.
However, there appeared to be confusion in some quarters as to the role those elected via Māori constituencies would play.
"Councillors sign an oath to represent all Northlanders, and this is reflected in council's vision, Northland Together We Thrive - Ko Te Taitokerau, Ka whai hua tātou," Smart said.
"Māori elected to designated Māori seats will sign the same oath as other councillors; at the decision table they will represent and make decisions for the good of all Northlanders, not just tangata whenua.
"Similarly, all councillors are elected by constituents to make democratic decisions using robust, well-considered information. This means that as elected representatives we must all come to the decision table with no pre-determination, willing to listen, contribute to good debate and then support the outcome of the vote."
From time to time individual councillors would find themselves at odds with a position or collective decisions, but that was simply the democratic process at work. Once decisions had been made, councillors had a duty to support them as part of their collective responsibility.
"Councillors have a duty to seek all the facts, listen to all the debate, and then collectively make the decision they feel is best for the region as a whole," she said.
Five per cent of electors (just over 6000 people) had the right to demand a poll on the council's intention to create Māori constituencies, but while a poll was currently being sought by some in the community, there is an important difference between community consultation and a referendum.
"The two are not the same thing. Polls are a simple 'yes' or 'no' vote, with no consultation, and in the case of Māori representation a poll is binding, which means that council has to abide by the result for the next two electoral cycles (six years)," she said.
A poll would cost ratepayers about $240,000; adding the roughly $80,000 it would cost for a byelection to replace former councillor John Bain, who resigned in protest over the Māori representation issue, would equate to a one per cent rate increase.
As for meeting the salaries of those elected to represent Māori constituencies, councillors' remuneration came from a fixed pool of money independently decided upon by the government's Remuneration Authority.
"Regardless of the number of councillors, the total pool amount does not change, meaning that there would be no extra remuneration expense to ratepayers if Māori constituency seats are established," she said. (The council currently had nine elected members, and if the number rose as a result of Māori seats, all would be paid less.)
Smart added that, regardless of which electoral roll they were on, electors would only able to cast one vote.
"If Māori are enrolled and vote on the Māori roll, they cannot also enrol and vote via the general roll. One person equals one vote," she said.
Setting up Māori constituencies would also require a review of the council's overall representation arrangements, including the number of councillors, existing constituency names and boundaries.
If opponents were unable to secure the signatures required to force a poll, the council would develop an Initial Representation Proposal, setting out the proposed new constituencies, names and boundaries, by August 31, 2021, followed by a period of formal consultation, including the opportunity for public submissions.
There would be a further objections/appeals period before a final determination would be made by the Local Government Commission by early April 2022. That determination would apply to both the 2022 and 2025 elections.