Ōtorohanga council an 'exemplar' of post-Three Waters councils - mayor

8:25 am on 10 July 2021

Ōtorohanga District Council is finding itself being held up as the example of how councils of the future might look with a greater focus on community wellbeing, rather than infrastructure.

Ōtorohanga Mayor Max Baxter says communities have to lead change, through partnerships with central Government

Ōtorohanga Mayor Max Baxter says communities have to lead change, through partnerships with central Government Photo: SUPPLIED/ KCN

As the government is looking likely to remove responsibility for freshwater, wastewater, and stormwater from territorial local authorities, councillors have been asking what councils may look like afterwards, and what will be their focus.

Under the Local Government Act councils have a legislative responsibility for the cultural, social, environmental and economic well-being of their communities - the four well-beings.

And this is one of the reasons why Ōtorohanga and the Mayors' Task Force For Jobs, a nation-wide programme which had its origins in the district, is attracting outside attention.

Mayor Max Baxter is the chair of a now national organisation which received positive media attention following the Covid-19 lockdowns.

The Mayors Taskforce For Jobs (MTFJ) is a nationwide network of New Zealand's mayors, working together towards the vision of all young people under 25 being engaged in appropriate education, training, work or other positive activity in their communities.

Young people were hit particularly hard by the Covid-19 crisis. Ministry of Social Development (MSD) data showed a 65 percent increase of young people accessing Jobseeker Work Ready benefits in 2020.

Which made the work of MTFJ all the more vital as its knowledge and proximity to local communities and businesses made it the ideal connector between young people and jobs.

"I followed what Dale [Williams] was doing back in the day. I came on board as the mayor in 2013, reformatted the mayors' task force - it was an unsustainable programme at that point," Baxter said.

"We were reliant on government funding, so we became independent. We went [through Local Government NZ] and started a whole new level of engagement. I've been chair for the last four years [after being] deputy chair for a few years.

"So in this last year we have had all the mayors in New Zealand, members of the MTFJ which, with the funding from MSD, we get now to support the employment hub in the rural councils across the country.

"There's $11.5 million per annum for the rural councils to get young people into employment. I'm constantly working with the young guy in Wellington [as to] how we can keep on enhancing the programme - especially if we are looking at the local government reform and what is the future for [for councils].

"Now we are fore-fronting that change, and we are being used as an exemplar of what can be achieved through partnership with central government.

"We can sit and criticise change, but the reality is, change is coming. We may be able to change some of it, the direction, but it is being led by central government."

Baxter sees it as an opportunity for regions to become involved with government in proactive change, instead of being dictated to.

"I think one of my biggest learnings as mayor is if you go to a minister's office in Wellington, and you go there with a problem, they are not interested. If you go in there with a solution, they are all ears.

"We have got to find out what the solution is from outside and take it to central government and see if they are receptive."

He credits mayoral predecessor Dale Williams with first creating the rural employment hubs, creating programmes to support the community's needs as opposed to a generic programme coming out of head office.

"All that good work is still going on and probably more so than it ever has in the past," Baxter said.

"The employment hub in town is a prime example. The driving licencing programmes at the college and run out of No12 in Te Kūiti, that's co-ordinated by our road safety co-ordinator in town. The mentoring that comes out of Thrive for the coastal communities out at Kāwhia Taaharoa and the like, to support the young people in their transition to Ōtorohanga College," he said.

"Wintec has also recognised the value of supporting the rural education with the opening of the Otorohanga campus. Wintec has come around to looking at all facets of young people and their need for employment, they are very supportive.

"Dale Williams did a heck of a lot for the young people in the town. He did a heck of a lot for employment, he did a lot for mayors' task force - there's no question about that. But because I don't yell down the street saying what's going on, it gets forgotten - the good work now going into getting young people into employment opportunities."

The MTFJ is governed by the Core Group which includes 17 mayors from throughout the country. The work set by it is executed by the Taskforce Coordinator.

The Core Group meet quarterly to discuss the strategy and operational works of the taskforce, as well as holding an annual general meeting at the LGNZ conference.

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