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Published: 2015-05-08 00:00:00

Democracy must be at the heart of local government, says a Waikato Regional Council submission on the Government’s ideas for the future of governance at Environment Canterbury, that area’s regional council.

Elected Environment Canterbury (ECan) councillors were replaced by Government-appointed commissioners in 2010 following a range of controversial issues. Now the Government is proposing a mixed governance model for the 2016 elections, suggesting seven elected councillors and six Government appointees.

At their recent full council meeting, Waikato regional councillors asked staff to send a submission to the Ministry for the Environment in time to meet a deadline for comment, whilst informing the ministry that the council may add to its submission later.

During the meeting, some Waikato councillors stressed that full democracy should be returned to ECan as soon as possible, while others were comfortable with commissioners helping councils with complex issues as long as they weren’t appointed by central Government.

A letter subsequently sent to the ministry from Waikato Regional Council chief executive Vaughan Payne said the Government’s discussion document on the issues raised very important issues for local government in New Zealand.

“The model being proposed for ECan is a significant change to the way local government operates in New Zealand.”

If such significant change to the nature of local government in New Zealand is to occur, it should only occur after a comprehensive and transparent evaluation of the options, where local government and communities are able to be fully involved in the development of the ideas, he said.

While acknowledging the success of ECan commissioners, Mr Payne’s letter said: “Democracy must be at the heart of local government. Councillors must be selected by a democratic process and they must be fully accountable to the population they serve.”

However, he said the council recognised that to do the best job possible councillors could at times need access to people with particular expertise to help make decisions. “In principle, council would support further work to investigate alternate ways of ensuring local government councillors in New Zealand are well informed in their decision making.

“There may therefore be some benefit in some people with certain expertise sitting around the council table, so that they are fully involved in key discussions. There may even be an argument supporting the appointment of commissioners.

“However, if this is the case there needs to be a rigorous and transparent discussion in New Zealand about how they would be selected, how they would be accountable to the territorial or regional community they serve, and what roles and powers would be appropriate for them. At this stage, council would not support such commissioners having voting rights.”

Nor would it support commissioners being appointed solely by central Government as such appointees would not be specifically accountable to their local communities, Mr Payne said.

Besides using commissioners, there were also many other ways that councillors could get expert opinion, he added.