Councillors keen to keep locals informed

JANINE RANKIN
Last updated 12:00 16/07/2014

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Palmerston North residents are being asked how they would like their city councillors served.

Since wards were abolished last year, and regular informal community meetings went with them, there has been no clear system for people to get in touch with a local councillor, nor for councillors to find out what ratepayers are thinking.

Councillors Rachel Bowen, Susan Baty, Aleisha Rutherford, Vaughan Dennison, Ross Linklater and Duncan McCann are developing an elected member engagement strategy, and want to hear how people would like the system to work.

Councillors recently held a round of community meetings about the draft annual plan, but almost all the events were poorly attended.

"We're just not scratching where anyone itches," said Bowen.

She said there was no shortage of council issues affecting people, from the price of rubbish bags to the management of reserves, and last year's council proposal to sell a range of neighbourhood reserves had prompted hundreds of submissions.

"But surely there is a better way to get people's attention earlier."

One of the opponents of reserve sales, Graeme Meyer, said the problem was not just about councillors being out of touch, but with people being apathetic.

"It's not until something hits you on your own patch that people want to get involved."

He said making people aware of what was going on had been hard work. However, more than 80 people then cared enough to turn up at an informal community meeting to tell councillors what they thought.

"And once people got involved, the councillors listened."

Richard Mildon made regular submissions about extending the city's boundaries into Manawatu. He was not so involved with the council now that issue had come and gone, "but they will still hear from us when we feel the need to have our voices heard".

Bowen said it was a challenge to find ways to get people involved.

"We perceive we put a lot of information out there. The hard bit is about how people connect with it."

She said it would be better to have conversations earlier and to explore possible practical implications before councillors got to the stage of taking a final vote and then finding out that people had other views.

"What we are looking at is a combination of push and pull. We need to pull people in, perhaps to meetings that might be geographical or based around topics of interest. We also need to be pushing out into the community in a way some councillors already do very well, but others don't."

The importance of social media and councillor attendance at community events was likely to be part of the answer, and Bowen said it would be useful to have an effective strategy in place in time for next year's review of the Long Term Plan, when key decisions would be made about the council's spending plans for the next decade.

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