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Chance to double our democracy

Opinion Piece

The Representation Review in progress seems like a massive missed opportunity to improve the state of local governance.

While there have been accusations of elected representatives trying to protect their positions and entrench the status quo, I’m not sure this is a case of intentionality, ineptitude or indifference — just inaction.

The big failure seems to be missing a proper assessment of the potential to establish community boards across the region. Staff reports touched on the necessity to consider such boards but provided no real information on the benefits nor the cost implications of establishing community boards.

The amount local bodies have to spend on elected representatives is determined by the Remuneration Authority; councils have no say on the total quantum, only the structure within which it is allocated.

A sensible option would double our democracy by cutting the number of councillors in half — have five in the city, two rural — and use the $250,000 in councillor salaries saved to pay three community boards (western rural, northern rural and city) with four to five elected representatives each. That would mean we have 23 elected representatives who would be much more accessible to the communities the councillors claim to be interested in securing decent representation for.

Community boards can have as much or as little decision-making power and delegated budget as the council determines. So while the rural areas would have far more representatives to ensure every corner of the region has a good person easily accessible, city representatives would still be the majority where it counts.

Unlike many other councils around the country, Gisborne District Council chose not to send out a questionnaire to residents about their interactions with elected representatives. Instead they received 18 responses to a survey held online over 17 days, along with two written responses. I’m not sure any meaningful conclusions can be drawn from such a small sample size, but if we combine those with the pre-Christmas public survey that got less than 100 responses, nearly half of responses to date said they don’t believe there are enough elected representatives and more than half believe councillors don’t address priority issues for our communities.

Of real concern is the fact there is no mention of the Representation Review in the Long Term Plan consultation document “WTF Tairawhiti” nor the full LTP document. WTF is supposed to stand for What’s The Future? but could be “Where’s The Foresight?” when there was no community boards option put forward by staff and barely a mention of them in council meetings. Instead, following secret workshops where council positions are worked out away from public oversight, we are simply told “Council has considered this matter and believes the ward structure adequately delivers appropriate representation to its communities of interest”, with no explanation of what information and rationale such belief is based on.

The council claims online that “consultation on the initial proposal is under way now and we welcome feedback on whether communities want community boards. Consultation is happening alongside the LTP community meetings.”

But with that consultation closing on April 12 (LTP consultation closes a week later), no mention of the Representation Review in the LTP consultation document and barely any information on the council website about the review, this half-pie “consultation” process seems to be a slide included almost as an afterthought in the LTP public presentations, with little opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about the possibilities, pros and cons, and preferred options.

I don’t understand why it wasn’t included in the LTP booklet, given other strategic decisions requiring separate consultation are included. The council can consider this my complaint about and submission on the Representation Review.