The make-up of who will sit on Rotorua's next council is in the hands of Parliament as the district's current council pushes for a law change for the district's electoral rules. But the composition the council is pushing for has been on a long journey from the governance model it first proposed, what it prefers and the stopgap model it agreed to. So how did we get here and what could happen next? Local Democracy Reporter Felix Desmarais breaks it all down.
The representation review
Representation reviews are a way for the public to review its representation arrangements and potentially change them. They're a six-yearly legislative requirement for councils.
Questions include how many elected members a council should have, and whether there are wards, or whether all elected members are elected at large – that is, not constricted by an electoral boundary.
For the past two elections, Rotorua Lakes Council had 10 councillors and a mayor, all elected at large. The council also has the Lakes Community Board and Rural Community Board with four members and a chairperson elected and one councillor appointed.
Representation reviews can change this, but there was a spanner in the works this time: the introduction of Māori wards.
When the council agreed to adopt a Māori ward on May 21, it changed the future structure of the council. Instead of electing all councillors at large, now at least one councillor had to be part of a ward.
The initial proposal
First, council officials considered eight representation models, and whittled them down to three, which were floated to the public during an "awareness phase" beginning on June 14 last year.
• Option one: Seven general ward councillors, three Māori ward councillors (7-3)
• Option two: Six general ward councillors, three Māori ward councillors and one councillor elected at large (6-3-1)
• Option three: Four general ward councillors, two Māori ward councillors and four councillors elected at large (4-2-4)
The council decided early on it would keep councillor numbers at 10.
All models would elect the mayor at large. Officials settled on option three as the initial proposal and presented it to councillors for approval.
Māori roll voters would be able to vote for six candidates, and general ward voters would be able to vote for eight.
On August 31 the council agreed to put the 4-2-4 model out for public consultation from September 8 until October 8.
The council received 159 submissions on its initial proposal. In a response analysis provided to elected members, officials broke down percentages based on how many people responded to each question, rather than the overall number of submitters.
It stated 39 of 80 respondents identified equity or equality as an issue for consideration. Twenty-five of 55 responses favoured the 7-3 model, and 18 wanted a model with a Māori ward and a rural ward.
Two of 55 supported the council's initial proposal.
At the representation review hearing on October 19, some submitters, such as Federated Farmers, argued for a rural ward.
Others, such as Ngāti Whakaue's Ana Morrison said the hapū wanted iwi co-governance.
Te Tatau O Te Arawa chairman Te Taru White told the council at the hearing co-governance was "always on the table" but in the meantime, Te Arawa whānui wanted three guaranteed Māori ward seats.
Other submitters said the proposed structure was undemocratic, favoured Māori and created "fake" at large wards.
After the hearing, a closed-door workshop was held, where elected members discussed the submissions and hearing feedback and directed council officials on its next steps.
The 'interim' model and the 'preferred' model
In a report prepared for the November 16 Strategy, Policy and Finance Committee meeting, council district leadership and democracy deputy chief executive Oonagh Hopkins pointed out a lack of "parity" with the initial proposal – the 4-2-4 model - for Māori roll voters, as they would only be able to vote for six candidates while general roll voters could select eight.
"This outcome may be seen as unfair to Māori, as it reduces the influence [of] those voters on the Māori ward roll ... which is contrary to the concept of parity."
Hopkins' report also identified themes from the submissions and hearing, including the concept of equality and equity, iwi/Māori co-governance aspirations, the Treaty of Waitangi and equal suffrage.
It also discussed the role of the Rotorua Township (Fenton) Agreement, with Ngāti Whakaue gifting land for the original township in the spirit of reciprocity and the "bicultural intent of the agreement as an equal relationship".
With that in mind, she said the council's new preferred model was one with three Māori ward seats, three general ward seats and four at large seats – 3-3-4.
It allowed voters on both wards the same number of seats to influence and equalised the number of Māori ward and general ward seats.
However, the model was unlawful under the Local Electoral Act as the law has a strict formula that limits the number of Māori ward seats based on population sizes.
There were 21,700 people on the Māori roll and 55,600 people on the general roll in Rotorua, her report said.
As a workaround, council officials devised a new, "interim" model: one Māori ward seat, one general ward seat and eight at large seats.
"The implications of this spilt, is that it does not deliver a significant number of Māori ward councillors ... but it does achieve parity," Hopkins' report said.
"Staff acknowledge that this option is not [the] council's preferred outcome, and will continue to seek legal remedies to achieve the preferred 3-3-4 representation model."
The committee agreed – narrowly - to recommend the council adopt the interim model, after a split vote that was broken by chairwoman Merepeka Raukawa-Tait's casting vote.
The local bill
At the council meeting later the same week, the recommendation was trumped by a five-part motion introduced by councillor Mercia Yates. Some parts had sub-parts.
• Confirmed the council's commitment to a Māori ward;
• Stated the council's commitment to voter "parity";
• Affirmed the role of the Rotorua Township (Fenton) Agreement and the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi in Rotorua's electoral system;
• Agreed the preferred model as 3-3-4;
• Noted that model was unlawful and instructed the chief executive to pursue statutory reforms to enable it as soon as possible;
• Adopted the interim – 1-1-8 – model; and
• Stated the interim model fell short of the preferred model but achieved "voter parity".
All parts were carried with a division noted only on the last. Councillors Reynold Macpherson, Peter Bentley, Tania Tapsell, Raj Kumar and Sandra Kai Fong voted against it.
The pursuit of a law change to enable the preferred model resulted in the drafting of the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill.
Rotorua-based Labour list MP Tāmati Coffey is the bill's sponsor. It seeks an exemption from the Local Electoral Act's requirements preventing the 3-3-4 model.
If the bill becomes law before June 1, the 3-3-4 model will replace the 1-1-8 model.
It was publicly notified and now awaits introduction to Parliament for its first reading and referral to the select committee. The select committee then prepares a report and makes recommendations to Parliament, including possible changes to the bill.
The bill is then read a second and third time – with votes to pass or block the bill from becoming law.
If the bill passes its third reading, it must receive royal assent via the Governor-General – generally considered a symbolic process – then it becomes law.
The law change would apply to at least the next two local elections following its passing.
So far, pursuing the law change has cost the council $46,500 in legal fees.
While the council pursues the law change to enable the preferred model, to all intents and purposes, the interim model is the one that will be implemented in this year's local election.
However, all representation review decisions are able to be appealed by submitters to the Local Government Commission, and the council received 12. The commission can overturn the council's decision.
Hearings for the appellants were held over Zoom on March 23, and the commission's decision on Rotorua's governance arrangements is due by April 10. If the local bill fails to pass through Parliament before June 1, that will be the final representation arrangement for at least the next election – a postal ballot which will close on October 8 this year.
May 21, 2021 - Rotorua Lakes Council adopts Māori wards
June 14, 2021 - The council's representation review "awareness phase" floats three representation models
August 31, 2021 - The council adopts its initial proposal (4-2-4) for public consultation
September 8 – October 8, 2021 - The representation review consultation period
October 18, 2021 - A hearing for representation review submitters
Between October 18 and November 16, 2021 - A closed door workshop on the representation review
November 16, 2021 - At a committee meeting, officials publicly reveal the council's preferred model (3-3-4), that it is unlawful, and offer an interim model (1-1-8)
November 19, 2021 – The council decides to adopt the interim model (1-1-8) and pursue a law change to achieve the preferred model (3-3-4)
March 2 – 23, 2022 – The Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill is publicly notified
March 23, 2022 – The Local Government Commission hears objections and appeals on the council's representation review
By April 10, 2022 – The Local Government Commission will decide on representation arrangements for the Rotorua district
By June 1, 2022 – The Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill must pass by this date in order to be in effect for the October 2022 local election.
• Local Democracy Reporting is public interest journalism funded by NZ On Air.