Local Government Amendment Bill could be 'the death of local democracy', Waimate mayor says
A new government amendment bill could signal the end of small, rural councils if it is passed, Waimate District Mayor Craig Rowley says.
The Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill (No 2) proposes to extend an independent authority's powers to initiate investigations into local government re-structuring without community consultation.
Rowley said it could give the Local Government Commission "pretty wide-ranging power".
If the bill was passed without changes, it "will potentially further alter the performance of councils, and could be the death of local democracy as we know it," Rowley said.
"The fundamental canon of democracy is held in representation of community ... locally elected representatives providing local solutions to local problems."
The commission could investigate the possibility of a council amalgamation in South Canterbury without community consultation, he said.
It was unclear when ratepayers would be involved in the process, which he was concerned was "undermining democracy", as it could remove the requirement for the commission to show demonstrable community support, he said.
Rowley asked all mayors across New Zealand to demand an extension of time to enable debate, consultation and understanding on the ramifications.
He challenged mayors to "take the opportunity to act on the seriousness of this proposed legislation" by raising community awareness.
Mackenzie District Mayor Claire Barlow disagreed with Rowley's view of the bill.
She believed the changes would empower councils and help them adapt, rather than forcing amalgamation.
"It's an acknowledgment from central government that they need to drive greater efficiency and collaboration," she said.
The amendment would "change democracy as we know it", she acknowledged. "But I don't believe it will be the death of it."
Rather than being afraid of change, councils needed to work with the government so they could have input into those changes, she said.
However, she did believe Rowley's call to extend the consultation period to allow for more discussion was "reasonable".
Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) chief executive Malcolm Alexander said the bill did have positive components, including the reintroduction of compulsory community polls for most bills on council reorganisation.
However, it enabled the creation of Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs), which would be responsible for the delivery of a significant service or activity on behalf of the council, without the approval of the council or the community, he said.
These CCOs could cover delivering water, transport or roading services.
"This is a matter for councils to do if they decide it's a better, more efficient way of doing things," Alexander said.
"The commission is going to be given the power to do it directly over the council's own activities. We don't regard this as particularly democratic."
Removing some of the key assets, such as water services, would take a large part of a council's budgeted activity away - up to 75 per cent for some councils, he said.
The councils would not have a lot to do and amalgamation could become a real prospect for some smaller councils, Alexander said.
LGNZ principal policy advisor Mike Reid said it was also challenging for councils to meet, discuss and create submissions to the bill within the allocated timeframe - councils meet every six or so weeks.
Council submissions on the bill have to be in by July 28 and the bill consideration process would happen over several months, he said.
Local Government Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga said reforms to the Local Government Act would protect local democracy and provided more options for delivering better services and value to ratepayers.
The concerns raised about CCOs were not accurate as there were 78 council and 66 water authorities across New Zealand, Lotu-Iiga said.
"The projected costs of maintaining and building core infrastructure such as water, sewerage, flood protection and roading are growing exponentially faster than the ability of local ratepayers to bear."
The bill enables "the development of shared infrastructure ownership and management across regions. This is essential for developing regions and communities", Lotu-Iiga said.
Timaru District Mayor Damon Odey declined to comment on the issue as it would be discussed at a full council meeting next week.