Whangārei district councillors challenge council's Māori wards decision

8:12 pm on 17 March 2021

Five Whangārei district councillors are seeking to overturn their council's vote for Māori wards.

Councillor Vince Cocurullo (standing) speaks against his council voting for Māori seats at its November meeting.

Councillor Vince Cocurullo (standing) speaks against his council voting for Māori seats at its November meeting. Photo: Northern Advocate / Michael Cunningham

Councillor Vince Cocurullo said the challenge sought to have Whangārei District Council (WDC)'s November decision for Māori representation on council rescinded.

The formal challenge will come from Cocurullo, Shelley Deeming, Phil Halse, Greg Martin and Simon Reid at next week's Thursday, 25 March council meeting.

Whangārei Mayor Sheryl Mai said today in the face of the challenge that the need for the district to have Māori seats was just as valid today as it was five months ago when the council decided in their favour, if not more so.

Whangārei Mayor Sheryl Mai

Sheryl Mai Photo: Northern Advocate / Tania Whyte

Mai put the motion for Māori wards at the council's November meeting.

"Our Māori hapū and community have very clearly told us that at today's Te Kārearea meeting," Mai said.

Te Kārearea Strategic Partnership Forum Standing Committee is the Whangārei council's formal Māori standing committee. More than an hour's debate resulted from the challenge's news at today's meeting.

"(Māori representation) is a good thing for the council and Whangārei district," Len Bristowe, Te Kārearea Strategic Partnership Forum Standing Committee co-chair said.

"What is the big issue. Why shouldn't there be Māori wards. Is it because Māori skin colour is different or Māori aren't intelligent enough?" Bristowe said after the meeting.

The challenging quintet will formally table a notice of motion that all councillors will then need to vote on.

On 3 November, the council's 8:6 vote for Māori wards saw Cocurullo, Deeming, Halse, Martin, Reid and councillor Jayne Golightly vote against their introduction.

Mai, Deputy Mayor Greg Innes and councillors Gavin Benney, Nick Connop, Ken Couper, Tricia Cutforth, Anna Murphy and Carol Peters voted in their favour.

Cocurullo said thousands of Whangārei electors had already demanded a poll against WDC's November council decision.

Such polls have typically overturned council pro-Māori wards' decisions, as happened with eight of New Zealand's last nine polls. A recent law change ensured that a petition from 5 percent of ratepayers or more can no longer call for a binding poll on Māori wards.

Cocurullo said it was important the community's voice was heard, rather than the council itself making the decision.

Democracy Northland over summer gathered more than 3080 signatures from WDC's 73,563 electors, demanding the poll. Leader John Bain will formally present the petition to next week's council meeting - even though it's no longer valid under the just-passed 1 March Local Electoral (Māori seats and Māori Constituencies) Amendment Act 2021.

"We can't just dismiss the community, that's not open democracy," Halse, who is also WDC's Te Kārearea Strategic Partnership Forum Standing Committee's councillor co-chair said.

Electoral Officer Dale Ofsoske said under the March legislation change, electors could no longer demand a binding poll on WDC's Māori wards decision. They could not ask for a non-binding poll either.

The only way a poll could happen was by council resolution. This could only be a non-binding poll, conducted at the next 2022 local government elections, its purpose simply to give council a steer for the following 2025 local elections, Ofsoske said.

The challenge comes on the cusp of what Mai today said was WDC's biggest-ever representation review discussion. The review has come as a result of the council voting to bring in Māori wards.

It is required to look into representation considerations such as the total number of WDC councillors, how they are elected, how many of those are from general and Māori wards, the number of wards, ward boundaries, whether councillors are elected at large/in their wards or a mixture of these, whether to still have wards and whether or not to introduce community boards.

Mai said one option was to reduce the number of councillors to eight and bring in community boards.

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