Far North District councillors have backed a proposal for a radical overhaul of Northland local government.
The Better Local Government in the Far North Working Group, chaired by Mayor Wayne Brown and Ngai Takoto leader Rangitane Marsden, is proposing that the Far North become a unitary authority combining the regional and district council roles. The Northland Regional Council would be ditched while Whangarei could merge with all or part of Kaipara to form a unitary authority of its own, albeit one that could be saddled with Mangawhai's debt.
Councillors debated the proposal at length last Thursday, eventually voting 7:2 to send it to the Local Government Commission for consideration.
While all backed the unitary authority plan, some councillors believed it needed more consultation or had a better chance of success if the Far North and Whangarei submitted a combined proposal.
Mr Brown said those who believed the status quo was an option were mistaken.
With Auckland already a unitary authority and Wellington, Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay pursuing mergers, the Far North had to act now or have someone else's plans imposed on it.
Cr Sally Macauley said with 972 submissions received - just 1.7 per cent of the population - the proposal should go out for a special consultative process first. The council had to be able to show the Government it had strong public support, she said.
Cr Di Maxwell said the plan was compelling and gave the Far North a chance to take control of its own destiny. Many of those who opposed the plan did so only because they believed it was driven by Mr Brown.
Deputy Mayor Ann Court said it was "a damn good proposal" but needed to go out for a further round of consultation. The annual plan, due to go out this month, was a good chance to do so.
She agreed some form of reform was inevitable, saying the Local Government Commission believed having one-third of the country run by one council and the rest run by 78 councils was "silliness". However, the Government's conviction that bigger was better, plus the fact Whangarei had not formally backed the Far North's proposal, meant Northland could end up with one unitary authority.
"I think it's a very good proposal and it has wings, but I can't vote for it until the community tells me they want it. This is not about railroading through a proposal to suit a pre-determined timeline or agenda, nor is it about a game of one-upmanship with the Northland Regional Council. This is about the future of local representation and democracy in Northland," she said.
Cr Tom Baker was unhappy he had received the business case only the previous afternoon, and said the Far North and Whangarei should submit a joint proposal. If it appeared the two councils could not work together, it would be easier for the Local Government Commission to impose a single unitary authority.
Cr Tracy Dalton backed the plan, saying it was unique among council projects in that Maori been involved from the start.
Mr Brown urged against delay, saying there had been 15 public meetings already and the vote was only a first step. If the Local Government Commission liked the plan, it would consult widely before going ahead.
"You can go in early and affect your future, or you can sit back and wonder what happened to you," he said.
A frustrated Mr Marsden was one of the last to speak, hitting out at councillors' hesitation.
"If you can't deliver on this today, we're out of here. We have too much at stake. We'll do what we can for the betterment of out people."
Many people were hung up on the plan being Mr Brown's baby, "but good on him for growing balls", Mr Marsden said.
The motion to lodge the proposal with the Local Government Commission was moved by Cr Monty Knight and seconded by Cr Dalton. Crs Court and Baker voted against it.
The proposal includes an option of the regional council remaining to service Whangarei and Kaipara.