A rural ward and equal seats for Māori and non-Māori are among proposals by public submitters on the structure of the district council.
Rotorua Lakes Council received 169 submissions on its 2021 representation review, with 27 submitters presenting their views to the council's Strategy, Policy and Finance Committee yesterday.
Territorial authorities have to review their governance structure every six years, including how many elected members they have, whether they have wards and if so how many seats they might contain, among other things.
Public consultation on the council's proposed model ran from September 8 to October 8. The proposal would elect the mayor at large, have one Māori ward with two seats, one general ward with four seats and four at-large seats.
At-large means a candidate whose voters are not confined within a boundary.
Submissions on Tuesday from Federated Farmers senior policy adviser Hilary Walker and Rotorua-Taupō regional president Colin Guyton expressed support for a rural ward that would elect a councillor from rural residents.
Walker said the council had more than 7000 rural constituents and a rural-based candidate would "face significant hurdles" to be elected in an at-large ward.
She said there was a risk of urban voters and candidates dominating elections.
Guyton said he supported the creation of a rural ward while retaining the rural community board.
He said the rural community felt "a little bit left out" and the feeling was widespread.
Fellow rural submitters Lachlan McKenzie, John Martelli and Alan Wills also said they wanted a rural ward.
Wills said: "For me, and for a lot of the rural people, it's having a seat at the table."
Some submitters also expressed support for a co-governance structure, which would see equal representation of Māori on the council table alongside non-Māori.
Ngāti Whakaue representatives Tupara Morrison, Ana Morrison and David Thomas said mana whenua were "looking for equity".
"Mana Whenua should have, and always should have had, equal status in all local authority governance decisions."
The group's submission argued for a Māori ward and a general ward with an equal number of seats, but was "agnostic" about the specific total number, so long as it was even.
Tupara Morrison said equity should take full account of the articles and principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick asked if the group were "in code suggesting we move toward co-governance".
Ana Morrison said it was.
Te Tatau o Te Arawa Te Taru White said Te Arawa viewed three seats for the Māori ward as "essential" but the call for a 50/50 partnership had "always been on the table".
Te Pāti Māori Rotorua chairman Liam Temara-Benfell said the purpose of Māori wards was to "give voice to the tangata whenua of your community" and the council should have three seats for Māori.
However, co-governance was the ideal.
"Iwi Māori is not a random group of people in this society. We are another Treaty partner, the other half of an agreement that formed this nation and as such we claim the right to be heard."
He said Māori had been ready for co-governance for 180 years.
At the meeting, a number of submitters echoed statements by councillor Reynold Macpherson in a committee meeting early last month that the proposed structure was undemocratic, favoured Māori and created "fake" at large wards.
He also accused the council of "gerrymandering" — manipulating electoral boundaries to favour one group or individual - which was also echoed by some submitters.
At the time those comments were vehemently pushed back on by a number of members, particularly Chadwick and councillors Tania Tapsell and Mercia Yates.
Committee chairwoman Merepeka Raukawa-Tait ruled Macpherson, who is also the Rotorua Residents and Ratepayers chairman, and Te Tatau o Te Arawa representative Potaua Biasiny-Tule, could not ask questions of any submitters as the hearing would receive submissions from both of those groups.
Other submitters said they found the council's proposed structure confusing and convoluted and said it would be off-putting to voters and candidates, and it was better to keep it simple with three Māori ward seats and seven general ward seats.
In the meeting, district leadership and democracy deputy chief executive Oonagh Hopkins said a closed-door "forum" for elected members tomorrow would consider and process the submissions to provide guidance on a final proposal for the council to consider for approval.
After that decision, the public will have a right to make an objection or appeal between November 19 and December 20 before the proposal is sent to the Local Government Commission.
If there is an appeal, the Local Government Commission must make a final determination on representation arrangements by April 10 2022.
The 2022 local elections, held by postal vote, will be on October 8 2022.