New law hard on councils

JANINE RANKIN
Last updated 12:00 03/12/2012

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A law change designed to restrict the role of councils is being denounced as a blow for democracy.

And critics say the change makes the law so ambiguous that where ratepayer money is spent may come down to a court case.

Palmerston North City Council chief executive Paddy Clifford said the Local Government Amendment Act, which gets rid of the four wellbeings - social, economic, environmental and cultural - was disappointing.

And mayors around the region fear it will lead to court actions to clarify what councils can do.

"It's a real danger, that someone with a barrow to push could mount a court case claiming a council did something that was not a core service, or did not get it done the most cost-effective way," said Rangitikei Mayor Chalky Leary.

Mr Clifford said consideration of the social, environmental, economic and cultural impact of decisions was widely observed by successful businesses, and should continue to shape the actions of councils.

The law change created a lot of uncertainty, he said, because it did not define local government's core services.

"The public are telling us they want us to be involved in encouraging creation of new jobs, for example, but it is not clear whether we should be or not."

City mayor Jono Naylor said people's expectations were not limited to cost-effective infrastructure and services.

"It's poorly constructed legislation. What the Government wants us to do is poorly defined, and can only be tested through a legal challenge through the courts."

Mr Clifford said activities like recycling, libraries, pensioner housing and public safety initiatives were areas that some people might see as outside of the scope of the amended act, but Palmerston North ratepayers wanted them.

"The people who pay should have the say. Should people in Wellington, remote from this community, tell us what we should and should not do? - that is a mockery of local democracy."

Although the council would study the detail of the legislation and make changes necessary to ensure compliance, he said social concerns ratepayers brought to the council would not disappear.

Horowhenua Mayor Brendan Duffy was struggling to understand the mixed messages.

On one hand, the council is one of six sites involved in a social sector services trial, which Cabinet ministers have supported to encourage greater collaboration between councils and social agencies.

On the other was the new law that seemed to be working in the opposite direction.

If anyone was to use the legislation to challenge councils' spending on things like Neighbourhood Support, or a health shuttle, or surf lifesaving, "then the only winners will be lawyers, and ratepayers will end up paying them".

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Tararua Mayor Roly Ellis said there were very few examples of "social" spending in the council's plan, and its budget was stretched just maintaining roads and pipes.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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