After a robust and lengthy debate, Whakatāne district council has voted to join Communities 4 Local Democracy, an action group formed by councils in response to the Government legislating to mandate three waters reforms.
At an extraordinary meeting on Wednesday morning, Mayor Judy Turner and four councillors voted against a notice of motion tabled by councillor John Pullar on January 28 to join the grouping of 29 councils putting forward an alternative model for Three Waters management. However, they were outvoted by the six remaining councillors.
The vote came after a discussion via Zoom that lasted over 80 minutes.
Mr Pullar urged councillors to vote for the motion, saying it was about showing solidarity with neighbouring councils in support of an alternative solution to managing drinking water, stormwater and wastewater than has been proposed by the Government.
“It’s about us wanting our council to do a little bit extra for our communities,” he said.
Mrs Turner was among those who argued against the motion, saying that joining Communities 4 Local Government would weaken the council’s voice in Wellington.
“Three waters is just the first cab off the rank in terms of reform. We have a long journey ahead of us,” she said.
She was also concerned that if they committed to the group, it wouldn’t just be about the three waters and would add to the workload for staff.
“If we’re going to do it, we’re going to have to do it properly. Our staff are going to be put under incredible pressure. If we’re not going to run some workshops and respond to their ideas, and actually do something then that’s a waste of money.”
She also voiced her concern about Whakatāne’s ability to pay for the three waters upgrades needed to meet new standards.
“If the Government was to walk away from this, because of our pushback, the problem hasn’t gone away. We have hundreds of millions of dollars, in Whakatāne, of upgrades that will be required over the next few years and I am not convinced that we can afford that without some support,” she said.
“We’re in a difficult situation. We don’t like the design of the support being offered, or aspects of the design, but to pretend that we don’t need support of any kind, I think, is very poorly considered. Remember that our resource consents expire in 2026. We are not too far away from the problem hitting us hard.”
She reminded councillors that the Local Government Three Waters Working Group that was currently advocating for all councils had been making progress with the Government.
“The Government are making some changes to their reform package, so they are listening. And they’ve definitely slowed down the reform timeline to allow for input. We need to reconsider where we expend our effort to get the best outcome for our community in the long term.”
Mr Pullar’s proposal included a financial commitment of $15,000 along with moral support for the group.
“I do not believe that us joining Communities 4 Local Democracy will create extra work for our staff, nor do I believe that it will cause a backlash from Central Government regarding our funding already committed. Some may feel that could be the case, but we live in a democratic country, surely. Or am I being naïve,” he said.
“There is no reason we cannot still be a part of our member organisation LGNZ, but I don’t think that they are being strong enough in their voice to central Government. This is not about rocking the LGNZ boat. It is about our views being heard and our opinions shared.”
Councillor Nandor Tanczos agreed with Mrs Turner, saying Communities 4 Local Democracy had only one option now on the table and that it was “completely inadequate”.
“That is to put a charge per connection on water connections and then spread that around the country in the hope that that’s going to make it easier for poor communities. They were not very transparent about what those costs per connection were going to look like. We’ve heard about figures of $20 raising $100 million per year [nationwide]. We know that’s a magnitude out from what’s needed. We’re talking about needing billions of dollars.
“So, the cost per connection to realistically fund the upgrades that will be needed is going to be huge. And that’s a flat rate across every community, regardless of how much water you use, so it’s retrogressive for poor people. For me that’s just not any kind of alternative to the Government’s proposal.”
Deputy Mayor Andrew Iles and councillor Julie Jukes and Gerard van Beek were also against the motion.
Mr van Beek said the council needed to “take the political out of supplying three waters, and the three waters entities”.
“While there are some fishhooks in it, I am more supportive of that than leaving three waters with council, because we just do not do a good job.
He said councillors were reluctant to increase rates to pay for the work needing to be done. He gave as an example the smell of the Whakatāne oxidation ponds, saying staff had been pushing to have the ponds desludged since he joined the council.
“We’re 12 years down the track and Whakatane oxidation ponds still haven’t been desludged. We are continually driving past the ponds and suffering foul odour. Yesterday, in my trip into town I would have scored it about three out of 10. Sometimes it’s about 9 out of 10. Clearly, we haven’t been doing the things that we need to do for the oxidation ponds.”
He gave as other examples the lack of progress on Matatā waste water system, poor decision making around spending on Whakatāne water supply and lack of chlorination of Murupara water supply.
He said our council very seldom reached 100 percent compliance with Ministry of Health guidelines for drinking water.
Those who voted for the motion to join with the group were councillors Lesley Immink, Wilson James, Alison Silcock, Gavin Dennis, Victor Luca and Mr Pullar.
Mrs Immink said she wanted the council to take a stronger stance against the reforms from the start.
“When we put our submission in [to central Government] many councillors wanted us to have a stronger position and, in fact, align with Ōpōtiki and Kawerau but that didn’t seem to go very far and it ended up having a perception across the community that we were soft - that we should have rejected it outright.”
She felt that when Communities 4 Local Democracy was formed in December there were a number of councillors interested in joining the group.
“We pretty much got softly pushed aside. My feeling was that there were more of us that wanted to investigate further what had happened. Now we are in March, and it is not until John [Pullar] raised this notice of motion that we have actually now had a much more balanced view of what they are proposing and what the Local Government Steering Group are working through versus the Department of Internal Affairs model.”
Mrs Immink was critical of central Government for not engaging more with iwi over the reforms.
“We still have not had the right level of engagement, considering the level of governance that the DIA are saying that they are going to be working toward with iwi. Iwi are absolutely swamped already with the level of Māori representation that is expected. We can’t even get, in our local community, some of our iwi engagement partners to be working with us because they are already short on capacity. Now, with three waters coming on board, the worry Is that that layer of capacity will go up the line and we will have even less down in our local community.”
Mr Luca said if it had been up to him, he would have “jumped into Communities 4 Local Democracy, virtually immediately”.
“I don’t remember us getting a choice, I don’t remember us voting on it. I don’t even remember much discussion about it. I think the voice of the community has been very strong. It’s seldom that you get so many people coming out in that way.”
Mrs Silcock agreed, adding that she had no faith in Local Government New Zealand to advocate on behalf of local councils.
“Local Government New Zealand is listening to the Government, not to councils.
“Although there was no public consultation for the Three Waters Reform, this council received 220 submissions with an overwhelming majority against the proposal. New Zealanders want open discussion, real data and choices. Community consultation is paramount.”
Letters will be sent to Communities 4 Local Democracy and Local Government New Zealand informing them of the decision.
Chief executive Steph O’Sullivan said she would do some work on defining the scope of what joining the group would look like to manage effectively and ensuring councillors received the information they were seeking.
She would look at whether staff could manage this within the current budget or whether they would need to come back to the council for more budget to be able to source that work.
-Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.