Councils talk change

Mayors and councillors from the Waikato and Bay of Plenty will meet tomorrow in the wake of a Government announcement that local government is in for a shake-up.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta made the announcement last week and signalled the biggest revamp of local government since 1989, when the Waipā, Waikato and Ōtorohanga district councils and the Waikato Regional Councils were established.

Tomorrow’s meeting will bring together civic leaders from Local Government New Zealand Zone 2 – which takes in regional councils, and city and district administrations from Gisborne around to the Coromandel Peninsula and Tauranga, across to the west coast and south to Waitomo and Taupō.
Waipā mayor Jim Mylchreest said he would discuss the issue publicly after that meeting.

In Ōtorohanga mayor Max Baxter is nervous about the proposed revamp, but acknowledges the need for a review.

The Government had said it would not push for amalgamations but he feared this could be amalgamation by a different name.

He acknowledged that some core services of councils were being eroded, notably by the Three Waters reforms, but also believed Local Government had been consistently under resourced.

In light of the changes, he acknowledged that unless councils were repurposed, they would become irrelevant.

“If DHBs have failed, is local government the place for the delivery of health? It is a big beast.”
Local body politicians appear unlikely to support a proposal for an Auckland style super council. Max Baxter said it would not be workable in such a large area.

Waikato Regional Council chair Russ Rimmington said the region running from Coromandel to Taupō was too big for that.

“I think the answer would be to have the smaller councils consider themselves and their populace to have a voluntary kind of merger perhaps, Waitomo, Ōtorohanga, that kind of area,” he said.

The changes are likely to put focus on Ōtorohanga, which has previously resisted moves to put it into the same district as Te Kuiti. But there may be support from further south in Taumarunui for a district which is based on King Country boundaries.

Mayor Baxter questioned the community of interest between Taumarunui and Ōtorohanga. He thought it more likely an administration covering Waitomo, Ōtorohanga and Waipā would be considered.

The call for change is in keeping with some significant moves by the Government.

It has already opened the way for Māori wards – a move which has encouraged Ōtorohanga, Palmerston North and Tauranga to follow Wairoa, New Plymouth, South Taranaki and Northland councils and announce they will be in place for next year’s elections.

The Government has also signalled plans to take the controversial issue of fluoride in water out of the hands of local bodies.

It has also followed up a revamp the country’s tertiary education sector by announcing plans to abolish Health Boards and create a centralised health agency.

If the moves to date are any signal, then a revamp of local government will involve more shotgun weddings than divorces.

Waikato, population 500,000, now has a dozen councils and 136 councillors.

Waikato Chamber of Commerce chief executive Don Good says that’s “12 replications, 12 governance bodies, 12 bureaucracies, 12 large cost-centres and 12 voices singing off separate song sheets.”

He told Radio New Zealand the process of amalgamation needed to be spurred on.

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