Transition to democratically-elected ECan under way
Environment Canterbury (ECan) will be run by a combination of elected councillors and Government-appointed commissioners from next year, with a fully-elected council returning in 2019.
Environment Minister Nick Smith on Wednesday confirmed the next governance model will be a 7-6 split between councillors and commissioners, forming after the next local government elections in October 2016.
"This phased approach ensures we maintain the momentum in completing Canterbury's water plan and work on the earthquake recovery, while providing an orderly transition to a fully-elected council in 2019," he said.
Under the mixed-governance plan, four elected councillors will represent Christchurch. North, Mid and South Canterbury will have one elected councillor each.
The Government, frustrated at ECan's inability to implement freshwater management reform, removed the council in 2010, replacing it with six commissioners.
They were only expected to serve until 2013 but their tenure was extended. Smith believed a return to a wholly-elected council at that point could jeopardise work under way, particulary on water reforms.
He acknowledged the need for a return to a democratically-elected council, but said the commissioners ongoing presence was essential.
"When the commissioners stepped in my ministry said Environment Canterbury was the furthest behind on getting New Zealand's fresh water properly managed. Their view now is Environment Canterbury is at the cutting edge, not just in New Zealand but internationally.
"The commissioners have done an awesome job - our view is that while the transition back to a fully-elected council is important, we want to see that water job complete."
The line-up of commissioners will be finalised after next year's election, Smith hoped most incumbents would want to continue through to 2019.
"We think it would be bad for Canterbury to have a clean slate in terms of moving to a new governance structure. We want to see some of the commissioners continuing on for 2016-19 to finish the job, particularly around water."
Smith allayed fears the commisioners could stay beyond 2019. Legislation to be introduced later this year would guarantee an elected council would take over.
He said six district council's within ECan's jurisdiction - Hurunui, Waimakariri, Ashburton, Timaru, Mackenzie and Waitaki - supported mixed representation. Selwyn wanted the commissioners to continue, Christchurch city wanted a fully-elected council and Waimate and Kaikoura district councils "did not express a clear view".
Smith's announcement was greeted with sceptism from critics.
"Calling it a transition to democracy is misleading, this is just denying Cantabrians their rights for four more years," Labour environment spokeswoman Megan Woods said.
Christchurch deputy mayor Vicki Buck was also disappointed.
"It's a very fundamental part of democracy that you elect your representatives," she said.
"So four out of 13 [representatives] for an area [Christchurch] that's got three-quarters of the population? Yeah, that's interesting."
Green Party spokeswoman for Christchurch Eugenie Sage echoed the concerns.
"Democracy is our greatest asset yet National is denying Cantabrians a proper vote for almost a decade. Citizens deserve more than the second class council they are getting which the Government can continue to influence and dominate.