Hamilton City Council is divided on a suitable response to the announcement of the Three Waters Reform mandate last month.
More than 30 councils across New Zealand, including Waipa, South Waikato, Taupo, Matamata-Piako and Waikato District as well as Waikato Regional Council have joined Waimakariri District Council from Canterbury in signing a letter to the Prime Minister requesting the Government to put an immediate pause on the reform.
Hamilton City Council decided not to sign Waimakariri's letter and to instead write its own letter to Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta.
Mayor Paula Southgate says Hamilton has clearly voiced its frustration about the mandate.
"Our council is adamant the model as it stands is not right for Hamilton ... all councillors want our community to have an effective voice – not just in any new structure but in the fundamental shaping of it.
"If Government can deliver a proposal that delivers better outcomes for ratepayers, Hamilton will be happy to see it. Until then, we'll reserve judgment."
Councillor Mark Bunting says this stance wasn't strong enough and he believes Hamilton should have joined Waimakariri.
"We have been too polite ... It would have sent a stronger message to sign a joint letter with 30 other councils addressed to the Prime Minister ... but Hamilton seems to think we do better alone."
Hamilton City Council's letter reinforces that the council doesn't support the current plan and the Government's preferred ownership model and instead asks for consideration of other models, including options that include explicit council control.
Further, the letter requests that Government clearly sets out the financial benefits of the reform proposal and seeks support for councils to undertake and fund proper consultation with the community before any select committee process.
However, the council also stated it is prepared to engage with that working group provided its terms of reference give the council confidence that meaningful changes will be possible and can deliver a model that works for Hamilton.
Bunting says this was nothing but a sternly worded letter. "I'm sure we will send tremors through the Government like that ... It's just ridiculous. We have yet again taken a very weak stance. I think [HCC's] letter is ineffective and don't think we will get a response."
In Waimakariri's letter, Mayor Dan Gordon asks for a meeting with the Prime Minister to address Three Waters Reform, express the councils' views and seek more viable approaches to the reform.
He says the councils would agree that good-quality drinking water and better environmental outcomes are essential and they support the new regulator and coming regulations.
"What we don't support is the flawed and now forced four-entity model when there are a number of alternative and viable delivery models that would be supported by ratepayers across New Zealand. We believe each asset owner has the right to determine how best to meet those requirements."
When asked about the Three Waters Reform by media at a media conference on Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Government won't back down on the reform.
"We didn't take these decisions lightly. They've taken years of consideration and they are designed in such a way that we retain all the things people care about: safe drinking water, the ability locally for them to be owned and managed, but us to actually turn around all of the issues we've had with water infrastructure to date."
She said that the Government made the decisions for all the right reasons. "We cannot continue to have thousands of New Zealanders getting sick from drinking water every year. We cannot continue to have a situation where infrastructure is holding back our ability to build the houses we need or a continuation of the situation where sewage is routinely released into our waterways.
"The status quo is not an option [because] ratepayers would be facing larger bills. We don't want that. That is what Three Waters is all about."
Bunting says that while Hamilton's councillors generally get along very well, they were split on Three Waters Reform.
"We lost the vote by one. This shows it's not just one single person against everybody. It annoys me that [the opposing councillors] say that they are against the Three Waters Reform as well because if they really were, they would take stronger action. It's just crocodile tears."
The councillors voting in favour of joining Waimakariri District Council's letter were Deputy Mayor Geoff Taylor, councillors Ewan Wilson, Angela O'Leary, Kesh Naidoo-Rauf, Mark Donovan and Bunting himself.
In a social media post, Bunting wrote he still loves and respects his colleagues, but: "To me, this decision is about as embarrassing as it was watching some councillors try to pronounce "Waimakiriri - or whatever it's called" during the debate, or the mayor deciding to talk right over my debate speech to find out the time, but that's for another day.
"O'Leary argued strongly that Hamilton has maintained our water assets with significant investment and that we do not need Government coming in and centralising something that we have been doing very very well ourselves.
"Taylor argued that we should be showing some courage this time, fighting for our residents and that we should join the other councils and write to the PM to say we want to find a better way. What are we afraid of?
"Wilson argued that we should be looking very closely at the idea that we should think about stopping spending over $80k for LGNZ to advocate on our behalf because 'that's right, they forgot to advocate on our behalf' … when nearly 70 per cent of councils wanted to go the other way," Bunting said.
"Donovan argued that while he was on the campaign trail recently this was the number one grievance that householders told him about. Am I naive to believe that democracy is still alive in this country?
"Naidoo-Rauf argued that we need to send a clear message that our water assets are not for sale or negotiation, that we have been ignored and that we have to stand up for what our residents are telling us.
"I argued that ... our residents and ratepayers deserved something much stronger than a sternly worded letter sent to the Government. This will hardly shake the halls of Wellington."
The same group of councillors were the ones voting in favour of Taylor's motion to oppose the reforms in the feedback to the Government at the end of September, demanding the proposals be halted and to signal Hamilton City would "opt out" of the Three Waters Reform. Back then, they also lost the vote by one.
"Hamilton's feedback [in September] was so polite, it was ignored. It's been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Sadly, I feel we have done it again sending another weak response,"
Waikato District Mayor Allan Sanson says his council voted unanimously to join the letter from Waimakariri.
"The letter wasn't a direct opposition to the proposals, but it highlights some of the outstanding issues we have that need to be addressed. [Those include] the governance structure and the links to the communities. Because if you take away the power from the council, you take away the link to the communities. Those are the issues we are worried about."
Waipa Mayor Jim Mylchreest, who has signed the letter on behalf of Waipa District Council, says Waipa is firmly against the reform. "We are of the view that it is not in our ratepayers' best interest and we have no faith in the cost savings outlined in the proposals."
The Waikato councils that didn't sign the letter are Waitomo, Otorohanga, Hauraki and Ruapehu District Council.
However, Waitomo District Mayor John Robertson emphasises this would not mean Waitomo District would agree with the proposals.
Otorohanga District Mayor Max Baxter says he didn't sign the letter because he didn't think it was the best step forward. "It's better to work together [with Government on solutions]."
Hauraki Mayor Toby Adams says his council has provided its own feedback to Government "through the channels provided to us".
Ruapehu District Mayor Don Cameron says his council has written its own letter and the council is still waiting to receive a response to its questions and concerns sent to Minister Mahuta on September 23.
He says he wants to clarify his statement from October which some interpreted as support from council for the Government's actions. "We supported the first stages of the reform process in good faith on the basis that Government had taken a 'voluntary, partnership-based approach to the waters reform, working with the local government sector and iwi.
"Up until the minister's announcement, council was anticipating that we would have the opportunity to ask our community by way of a referendum on whether they supported the reform proposals. We are not happy that this opportunity for our community to have their say has been taken out of our hands."
Cameron says that the Government must recognise that the mandate has deepened the feelings of mistrust and apprehension held by many in his community toward the process, and what they see as Government overreach.
"We feel strongly that Government now needs to do everything it can to satisfy any outstanding concerns specifically around ownership, local voice and control of water assets. And ... other significant reforms ... should be put on hold until [this] issue is fully resolved."
Thames-Coromandel Mayor Sandra Goudie told the Waikato Herald she initially thought of signing but would have to double-check with her secretary whether they ended up doing so.
Waimakariri, together with Timaru and Whangārei, also filed legal proceedings against the Government regarding the Three Waters Reform.
The three councils seek to affirm local government's rights and obligations as infrastructure asset owners. They also seek a declaration whether it would be unlawful for the Government's public education campaign to contain incorrect or misleading information in regards to local councils' rights, obligations and duties.
Gordon says: "We have significant concerns that the Government is proceeding on the basis of fundamental misunderstandings of the democratic importance of its definitions of Local Government and asset ownership, and feel that this process will offer us a clear and shared understanding of our rights and obligations for future negotiations."
Bunting says he also wanted to get legal action under way. "The Government asked us to breach the Local Government Act by making us make changes without direct consultation with the public. I tend to believe in local government but it has been eroded, with a lot of things becoming centralised."
The Government has already set up a working group made up of local government and iwi representatives to which people can submit their feedback. The working group will report back in March.
No Waikato council is part of the working group. "[So] we are completely bypassed. As a council there is nothing else we can do," Bunting says.