When 'public service' causes legal challenges

Last updated 07:32 17/12/2012

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OPINION: The past few days have seen the enactment of the Local Government Amendment Bill that legislates for quite a bit of change in the local government sector, writes Tracy Hicks in Southern Focus.

I acknowledge that much of the new act will be of interest only to trainspotters and likely to go largely unnoticed by the general public. Nevertheless, within the act there are some substantial changes to what we have known and worked with for the past 10 years. Many of the changes are welcomed by local government and, I believe, by the community at large.

However, there is one particular point that has attracted universal opposition from councils throughout the country but on which the Government has refused to budge.

It relates to something quite fundamental to the existence of councils: Their purpose.

On the face of it, it may seem like semantics but the purpose has shifted from being defined by four clear wellbeings - economic, social, environmental and cultural - to a generic purpose under the all-encompassing phrase of public service.

So why would councils be up in arms about such a mild term?

The concern we have is that as part of the legislation, it contains no definition and, as such, is wide open to interpretation. It is ironic that the driver of this piece of the legislation was concern from some quarters of the community that the previous definition allowed councils to be involved in areas they saw as being outside the core functions of local government and costing ratepayers a fortune.

It's a concern that I believe has no substance in fact, but that is beside the point.

The replacement wording hasn't been defined and our belief is that almost any decision made by councils, outside of perhaps roading, water or sewage, will be open for legal challenge.

The lawmakers say "well, that's fine, we disagree, but if you are challenged you will win because the terminology is so wide and encompassing that almost anything is possible".

What a waste of time and money! The only winners in this new game will be the lawyers and the certain losers will be the poor old ratepayers.

I guess time will tell if our concerns are founded or not but, if they are, I hope the Government will quickly act to limit the cost inflicted on ratepayers.

One might be mistaken for thinking that I am opposed to any change to local government legislation but nothing could be further from the truth. I think there will be some good from the direction it moves in, such as simplifying the long-term plan process, which will be welcomed by all, I am sure.

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I believe the jury will be out for some time on the empowerment of the mayoral role but I think it will allow for the election of a mayor and a team of like-minded councillors.

Of course, the ability for amalgamation in the local government sector has been made somewhat simpler than previously was the case, and already moves are beginning to be made in parts of the country.

Will it make for change in the south? I am not sure but I am already on record as saying there may well be opportunity for boundary changes to better reflect more defined communities of interest.

I am, however, implacably opposed to the notion of one Southland council, an idea that seems to get a bit of traction from time to time.

It's a really busy time of the year but I hope amid all the hype that goes with Christmas, you get some time to spend with family and friends. Too often we sacrifice what's really important for the urgent and in that we are all guilty.

While I can't make any promises, my plan this Christmas is to switch off the phone and the computer and pick up a few novels I have put aside.

All the best for a great Christmas and a wonderful 2013.

» Tracy Hicks is the Gore district mayor.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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