The debate panel, with Wairarapa Voice representative Ron Shaw speaking at the podium. PHOTO/CHELSEA BOYLE
By Chelsea Boyle
The debate on the possible amalgamation of the three Wairarapa councils has heated up, as nine of the region’s politicians fronted up on Tuesday night to a Carterton Events Centre filled with people eager for answers.
Ron Mark, Marama Fox, Russell Keys, Ron Shaw, Alastair Scott, Jamie Falloon, Lyn Patterson, Meka Whaitiri and Viv Napier all had to answer the same four questions, within a 90 second constraint, before the questioning was opened to the floor.
The meeting was organised by Wairarapa Voice.
While most of the speakers remained neutral, two opposing camps became clear from the beginning.
Masterton mayor Lyn Patterson and Wairarapa MP Alastair Scott were in favour of amalgamation, while former Carterton mayor Ron Mark and Wairarapa Voice representative Ron Shaw were firmly against.
A representative from the Local Government Commission was invited to take part but declined the offer.
From the outset Mrs Patterson said the views she expressed were her own, and did not represent Masterton District Council.
“I strongly support a Wairarapa district council,” she said.
“Why? This is not about our yesterdays, or even our todays, it is about our tomorrows.
“The services that local government deliver are facing increasing challenges and also increasing opportunities.
“In order for us to capitalise on these we need to be forward thinking and embracing the future so that our communities get the essential, effective and efficient public services that they deserve.”
When the audience demanded evidence showing where the improvements would lay, Mrs Patterson said it was a difficult task to quantify the benefits that came with streamlining operations across the region.
“We have an exciting opportunity here, let a Wairarapa council deal with the strategic issues and let’s empower the community boards by giving them delegated authority and funding to be responsive to their particular communities.
“Let us not waste this opportunity.”
Mr Scott said having three councils did not make sense, and tourism and policing were already managed across Wairarapa.
“Similarly, the council roles and functions should be and will be coordinated in a parallel plan.”
Mr Shaw told the audience he could talk all night about the reasons behind his opposition but boiled it down to seeing no real benefits and very real disadvantages.
What problem is amalgamation trying to solve? he asked.
“Well, I will quote from the LGC’s own documents. The councils are effective, the current set up works just as well as the proposal, and amalgamation will not result in major efficiencies.”
He said there was no “compelling” reason for the move to amalgamation.
Mr Shaw said residents stood to lose the close “handshake relationship” they currently had with council.
“If you currently ring the mayor and get action, forget it under amalgamation.”
He added that there would be an awful lot fewer councillors to speak to.
Mr Mark said his party, New Zealand First, believed if one area opted out of the amalgamation then that should be the end of the matter.
He said the introduction of a “hostile takeover clause” meant the “biggest and the loudest” would win.
“We don’t like that process. We believe the proposal is flawed in numerous ways.”
The researched support for a combined council was not compelling, barely taking a majority in the telephone polling, he said.
“We believe the transition costs have been thoroughly underestimated and deliberately played down.
“We think the savings have been totally overestimated.”
Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox said her party “had not come to a firm conclusion” because they would like to support the decision of the region.
She said everyone in the valley was connected and emphasised the importance of working together.
“But what people have overlooked is that the three district councils in this area have been given a national award for working together already.”
Carterton Deputy Mayor Russell Keys said he was still deciding where he stood on the matter.
He could see the benefits under the amalgamation of improved economies of scale and of one voice representing the Wairarapa on regional and national policies.
“At the moment Carterton has a very small limited opportunity to do that.”
He acknowledged the potential downside of poorer representation, especially in the rural areas.
Federated Farmers Wairarapa president Jamie Falloon said there needed to be more detail in the proposal before people made their decisions.
“I think the numbers look pretty skinny. You know, $700m of spending in the Wairarapa region over 10 years and only a $10m saving, is that right?
“That could pretty quickly go the wrong way, and then the ratepayers will have to pay for it.”
South Wairarapa Mayor Viv Napier said community boards were the key to the proposal being effective and in this area Masterton and Carterton would need time to “find their feet”.
Council staff were “often jacks of all trades” and the proposal would bring in more specialised staff.
It was also an opportunity to learn best practises from other councils, she said.
However, Mrs Napier maintained that the relationship with the regional council would have to change.
She said her council still believed in a unitary authority.
Labour MP for Ikaroa-Rawhiti Meka Whaitiri said her party was not opposed to amalgamation.
“The key for us is ensuring the local democracy and local participation is not lost.
“No region should undergo amalgamation without its citizens being involved in and fully endorsing that decision.”