Mixed messages on councils

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Some “mixed messages” were sent out by the Government on council amalgamation at this week’s Local Government New Zealand conference in Dunedin, Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher says.
The Government’s proposed Local Government Amendment Act has found little support from the Waitaki and Waimate district councils, which are concerned legislation could lead to local authority amalgamation and the loss of legal powers.
The amendment Act could also extend the powers of the Local Government Commission, an independent authority appointed by the Minister of Local Government, that would be able to initiate investigations into local government organisations without consultation with the council involved.
Other concerns are that the legislation would allow the Local Government Commission to determine where council-controlled companies could be established and where they could operate.
Mr Kircher said Prime Minister John Key’s conference-opening speech was at odds with a speech given by Local Government Minister Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga.
“We saw some mixed messages. The Prime Minister’s was all very much around amalgamation, and the minister’s was really talking more about shared services.
“He [the minister] spoke this morning [Tuesday] and there’s been quite a bit of movement, really. There’s been quite a bit of push-back on what’s been proposed.”
At the conference, Mr Key said the Government wanted more councils to amalgamate to reduce rates bills.
He believed this would work well, citing Auckland as an example.
Mr Kircher said he opposed amalgamation, instead favouring the concept of councils sharing services.
He said a shared services arrangement between local councils would mean efficiencies, particularly when it came to roading and water infrastructure staff, but allow councils to keep their own elected representatives.
“The thing around shared services is they can be efficient through water and roads being put in council-controlled organisations, so they still have an element of local control but are operated in a commercial kind of way if you like.
He said the Waitaki council put away money which could be used for a wide range of council needs, but with CCOs any surplus money could only be used for the purpose it was collected for.
Mr Kircher said Mr Lotu-Iiga had pledged to resign if councils were forced to amalgamate without consultation.
“He said he will be instructing his officials working on this document to work closely with Local Government New Zealand to make sure our concerns are taken into account and listened to, and to make sure it [amalgamation] doesn’t happen.”
Waimate Mayor Craig Rowley described the proposed Bill as a “blow against the pillars of democracy” and that it could be “the death of local democracy as we know it”.