In case you hadn’t noticed, the public consultation around the proposal to amalgamate local bodies in the Greater Wellington region closes on March 2nd. You could be excused for not knowing, because (much to their shame) the parties concerned have done little to encourage public debate on the topic. The proposal is highly contentious, has huge implications and yet has been so poorly publicised. But the one thing everyone seems to agree upon however is that the highly dysfunctional Wellington Regional Council must be dissolved, whatever happens.
An information guide dated December 2014 finally turned up in my letterbox in mid-February. The pamphlet explains the “draft” proposal put forward by the Local Government Commission for local government amalgamation in the Wellington region and invites public submissions. Drilling down into the commission website, it became apparent that there was not an online form for submission anywhere, but simply an email or postal address. I guess they weren’t expecting many responses. There was no obvious mention of the proposal or submission process on the Wellington City Council website at all. The Wellington Regional Council website does have one page devoted to the topic, including some useful background material, but zero information on how to actually make a submission. In an age of nearly universal access to internet, this is unacceptable and makes me suspicious about transparency around the entire process.
Notwithstanding the obfuscation, there has been a flurry of media activity in recent weeks as it emerged that almost half the Wellington Regional Council elected councillors are having second thoughts as public disquiet has been growing. Even the pro-amalgamation “Chamber of Horrors” have toned down their rhetoric lately, as it became clear that the real bill for amalgamation could be well north of $200 million, if harmonisation of I.T. services were included. In a recent joint statement the business Chambers agree there is a “need for change”, but do not go as far as endorsing the current proposal.
The original suggestion for amalgamation came from Wellington Regional Council itself and is being driven largely by an individual with one eye firmly fixed on the future super-mayor job. This person has a sterling previous track record of successfully promoting unpalatable political agendas and knows the right levers to push to get the job done. But releasing the amalgamation proposal at Christmas, then fronting up to a couple of small debates a week before the doors close simply doesn’t cut the mustard in terms of public engagement.
Ironically, it is the lack of goodwill between the existing regional council and the other councils in the region that has led to this problem in the first place. There are important regional projects such as economic development, roading and water that must be addressed in a co-ordinated way, but the regional council has failed to galvanise and unify the other players in the region. Making a clumsy grab for power must have seemed like the only option. What is really needed is a functional regional council that has the confidence of all the city and district councils and that can play nicely and work collegially on the really important issues that face our region. What we do not need is another Auckland-style unitary authoritary. Why reinvent the wheel at a huge cost to ratepayers?
So it is very clear that the existing Wellington Regional Council members must now step down and that the Local Government Commission must go back to the drawing board and respond with a structure that empowers the regional council, whilst retaining local legitimacy and addressing community needs. With luck, we should see a public referendum on the issue in the future. A prominent WRC councillor once expressed her disdain for democratic processes in the past, when she said “let us hold our noses and vote”. Perhaps ratepayers (and voters) of the Wellington region should follow suit.