Tauranga City Council’s current proposal for representation at the next election will address an “historic failure” to represent all communities of the city.
Representation was hotly debated in the Local Government Commission’s hearing of appeals and objections to the proposal on Wednesday.
Tauranga City Council commissioners presented the final proposal of a single member wards model, that included eight elected councillors from eight geographical wards, one elected from the Māori ward, and a mayor.
The proposed general wards are Mauao/Mount Maunganui, Arataki, Pāpāmoa, Welcome Bay, Matua-Ōtūmoetai, Bethlehem, Tauriko and Te Papa. The Māori ward, Te Awanui, will cover the entire city and the mayor will be elected at large.
This means everyone will get two votes, one for their ward and one for the mayor, those on the Māori electoral role will vote for the Māori ward councillor.
Commission chair Anne Tolley says the final proposal, based on the principal of geographic representation, is simpler and “encourages greater representation between councillors and community groups”.
“Historic failure to ensure that there was representation from across the city has led to community frustration,” she says.
During long term plan engagement, the commission heard from communities who “felt they’d been ignored by previous councils,” says Tolley.
“There was a strong message coming from some suburbs, such as Welcome Bay, that the community felt ignored and forgotten by the previous representation.”
Prior to the commission being appointed by Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta, the city had a model of 10 councillors and a mayor. There were 3 general wards with two positions available in each, four at large positions and the mayor
Tolley told Local government Commissioners: “The proposed arrangement allowed the ward councillors to effectively represent the views of people in their electoral area”.
“The general wards are smaller in geographic size and population than the current three general wards,” says Tolley.
“The proposal recognises that the concept of community of interest relates to the fundamental role of local government as community government.
“It recognises there are distinct communities within the Tauranga community which are quite widespread,” she says.
The hearing heard from several appellants, including former mayor Greg Brownless and John Robson, who was one of the councillors replaced by the commission.
Most submitters wanted to retain at least some of the at large councillor positions and others preferred the status quo.
Their reasoning was at large councillors will provide better representation under the single transferrable voting system.
Both Brownless and Robson claimed the current proposal was a reaction to a perceived issue with the previous council, where the race for the mayoralty didn’t end when the election was finalised.
In December 2020, Mahuta deposed the council after issues with governance and in-fighting between councillors.
First time councillor Jako Abrie resigned in October 2020, calling for the commission to be appointed. This was followed by mayor Tenby Powell a month later, who was also serving in local government for the first time.
Mahuta appointed the four-person commission, which began in February 2021.
Previously elected councillor John Robson in 2017. File image: SunLive.
Robson says: “I fear ... that what people are trying to do is to put something in place to address the results or the perceived results of the previous election”.
He says the last election was the city’s first under the STV system and it gave “a range of voices around the table”.
In Robson's opinion “an experienced mayor will have relished the challenge and I believe brought together an enormously powerful team”, says Robson.
In his view, “unfortunately, the election didn’t bless us as a city with an experienced mayor".
“I think we've got to avoid falling into the trap of fighting the previous war.”
“We've got to look forward in a pure and principled way and look at how we get real diversity around the table,” he says.
Former mayor Greg Brownless. File image/SunLive.
Brownless, who was mayor from 2016 to 2019, took the opportunity to take aim at the commissioners.
“It was interesting to see the Commissioners claiming they’ve demonstrated good governance,” he says.
“Certainly, the commission hasn’t been characterised by diversity of opinion that you will get in a normal elected council.”
He raised the point that an even number of elected representatives will rely heavily on the need for a mayor’s casting vote, and this can be decided by a council when it is elected.
Commissioner Bill Wasley addressed this in the commissioners’ right of reply.
He says if the council made no provision for a casting vote it will make the role of the mayor more important to “avoid a situation where there is a stand-off”, and no decision is able to be made.
“It does focus the role of the mayor and that person’s ability to work with the team and hopefully overcome that potential stand-off.”
Commissioner Stephen Selwood says they chose to make the mayoral role the only at large position to “elevate the mana of the role”.
During the right of reply, Tolley told to the Local Government Commissioners a lot of the appellants they heard from prefer the status quo.
“Most of them do not accept, that there was any need for the Minister to appoint a commission,” she says.
“Underlying all of that is a desire to get democracy back as quickly as possible because they didn't need the commission in the first place.”
Tauranga City commissioners have recommended to Mahuta that local government elections be delayed by a year, instead of taking place on October 8, 2022.
In the most recent report from commissioners to the Minister, commissioners suggest community engagement has seen concerns raised that a return to elected officials could again see “dysfunctional governance” impacting council effectiveness.
Local Democracy reporting understands Mahuta is expected to decide on this within the week.
Those that brought up the issue of returning Tauranga to democracy, were advised by Local Government Commission Chair Brendan Duffy that the purpose of the hearing was to discuss the city’s representation.
The Local Government Commission’s decision on representation must be made by April 11, 2022.
Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.