Gisborne council goes to hearing over representation arrangements

11:55 am on 19 March 2022

Gisborne District Council has undergone a Local Government Commission hearing over its representation arrangements, which include changes to its rural ward make-up and the introduction of Māori ward councillors.

Gisborne In Lockdown

Gisborne District Council is planning to introduce five Māori ward councillors at the next election. Photo: Supplied / LDR

On Thursday, the council underwent a robust hearing before the commission, which is now tasked with making a decision by 10 April on the proposed changes for the local authority election in October.

The council has proposed an alteration to its current arrangement of nine city ward councillors and four rural ward councillors to a new set-up that would include six city ward councillors, two rural ward councillors elected from one rural ward (rather than four rural wards, as has been the case) and five Māori ward councillors elected at large.

The mayor would still be voted for at-large under both arrangements.

"What we as a council can say is we're proud that we are introducing Māori wards," Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz said at the hearing.

"We are proud that we followed a process that was robust, and tried to include as many people in our community as possible.

"At the end of the day we have to make decisions and this is what we feel is a good move in the right direction."

However, she also said the proposal was not perfect and feared it didn't go far enough as far as Māori representation was concerned.

The journey to Thursday's hearing was a long one for the council.

It started in August 2020 when it consulted with the community on establishing Māori wards.

After receiving 275 submissions, of which two-thirds were in favour, the council unanimously voted at a November 2020 meeting to establish the wards for the next two elections.

The decision automatically triggered a representation review, which wasn't completed until December 2021 when appeals and objections were referred to the commission following consultation on various proposals, and feedback from the community.

The focus of discussion at Thursday’s hearing was the proposed halving of rural councillors from four to two, with commission chair Brendan Duffy and commissioner Sue Piper questioning if the changes served rural communities.

Stoltz conceded her trips up the Coast had been met with concern from people who were worried their voice would be lost.

But she added that as a unitary authority, there was an expectation of city councillors to also be involved in rural areas.

"It's not like we are just expecting two councillors to work outside the city and the rest of the councillors just to cover our city area."

Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz.

Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz says the council is proud to be introducing Māori wards. Photo: Supplied / LDR

Council chief executive Nedine Thatcher Swann added her support for the mayor, saying the Tairāwhiti rural population had a high Māori population, meaning the proposed changes still reflected fair representation for those areas.

Council director of internal partnerships James Baty said it was possible those elected under the Māori ward might live rurally but that it was a matter for the election result.

Pehimana Haapu Brown, representing Te Aitanga ā Māhaki Trust, told the commissioners they had been presented a unique opportunity to approve a significant number of Māori seats at the table.

"In our area, it's a significant number whether we settle on four or five. There is an opportunity for real purposeful change and I'm hoping the commissioners see that.

"The opportunity is here to make meaningful change to one of the few councils in New Zealand to have an elected Māori representation at the table that doesn't do away with the opportunity for mana whenua, tangata whenua, to have relationships with council and that elected body as well."

Brown said the council already did an excellent job of reaching rural areas, which wasn't dependent on having representatives living in those areas.

Selwyn Parata, representing Te Rūnanganui o Ngāti Porou, said he did not support the proposal because of its inclusion of the rural ward.

Ngāti Porou did, however, support the initial proposal of eight general councillors and five Māori councillors voted at large.

"At large must represent everyone, regardless, which is an important principle for us. Ngāti Porou therefore consider that the single at-large general and single at-large Māori wards allows for the strongest representation for Ngāti Porou under the current law."

Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust chair Staci Hare said the rural ward component was of particular interest to her iwi because of their horticultural and farming interests.

"As an iwi that has a footprint in urban and rural, with the city built on our tribal lands, we have to be both."

She hoped the panel would consider the allocation of representation "quite comprehensively" so the iwi voice wasn't further disenfranchised.

Commission chair Brendan Duffy said his team would be working through the information they had received to make a decision on the proposed changes by April 10.

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