Independence being locked out?

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    Waiheke’s bid for relative independence from the Auckland supercity is being “stitched up, well and truly”, according to Our Waiheke breakaway group spokesman John Meeuwsen, who is also a local board member.

    In a decision late last year, the Local Government Commission ruled that requests from both Waiheke and North Rodney for greater local governance had failed and the status quo would continue. However, both community groups are now appealing the decision, and the costing figures used by consultants Morrison Low to inform the commission’s decision have already been successfully challenged, Mr Meeuwsen says.

    Almost by accident, he says, Our Waiheke late last month unearthed news of a new Department of Internal Affairs-commissioned review of the LGC. He says it is to be completed within a matter of weeks by external consultants with the closest possible ties to the Morrison Low consultancy that, “in our view, did such a poor job of assessing Waiheke’s suitability for a local council independent of Auckland”.

    He says the new review, due to be completed by the end of this month, will be restricted to interviews with the Minister of Local Government [the Hon Nanaia Mahuta], “who has of course only just taken up the position”, Local Government Commissioners, Local Government NZ, the Society of Local Government Managers [SOLGM] and some [unspecified] councils.

    Announcing the review, Commission chair Sir Wira Gardiner said the role of supporting good practice in local government was extremely important “given the current local government challenges for communities and the increasing pressures on councils.

    “It is critical that communities have the opportunity to make certain their local democratic institutions are right for them – that they enable good and fair representation, but also ensure that councils deliver the quality services that ratepayers and residents expect,” he said.

    “The Commission welcomes a review in which a full range of options promoting cost-effective, efficient and local democratic decision-making for all our communities – and the Commission’s role in this – is considered, and looks forward to providing constructive input to those ends.’’

    However, Mr Meeuwsen says wide ranging generalities in press releases from the Department of Internal Affairs and the Local Government Commission – as well as the DIA’s terms of reference document – indicate a “deep-seated ideology” bias towards the aggregation of power in local government to larger entities – “the very concept that the rest of the country continues to reject, particularly in light of the Government-mandated Auckland amalgamation.

    “This is dialogue between those of similar and, in our experience, strongly held views as to scale in local government. We note the silence of LGNZ and SOLGM on the work of the LGC in recent years in this regard.”

    The LGC was formed in 1947 and in 1989 it cut the number of local and special purpose authorities in New Zealand from 850 to 86. The terms of reference for the review indicate a broad-ranging mandate to look at structural changes to local government. It will also question what functions and services need to continue and where there may be “practical and cost-effective” alternatives for how this might be done.

    However, Mr Meeuwsen says his group wonders whether central government officials are conducting the review in order to forestall wider scrutiny that might unearth how ineffectual central government has been in working with or assisting local government in their role over the last decade. 

    “How [Sir Wira] thinks this can be achieved by current officials and their former colleagues, who are bound to have very similar views on how local government ought to behave, is beyond us and not likely to be acceptable to the wider public” he says, pointing out that the Local Government Commission has been astoundingly unsuccessful in its work over the past five years.

    “The LGC has done a lot of work assessing applications for change to local government organisational arrangements in a number of regions – from the West Coast of the South Island, Hawkes Bay, greater Wellington including the Wairarapa, and most recently, the Wairarapa in isolation.

    “All to no apparent effect. Local communities, presumably fearing the kind of loss of local control they have seen in Auckland, have invariably voted against amalgamation proposals put forward by the commission. Even in the case of the Wairarapa, where the arguments for amalgamation seemed strongest and most widely supported, communities rejected the LGC proposal to amalgamate the three councils in their region.”

    “Of course, amalgamations are the only form of organisational change the LGC and Local Government NZ/SOLGM are willing to consider,” he says.

    “The High Court had to force it to consider applications from North Rodney and Waiheke for new councils.” •
    Liz Waters 

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