The first media story, published in late September was headlined “Grey Power sets referendum target on wards”. It reported that Grey Power was trying to force a binding referendum on the decision and planned to have the 3,500 signatories to its petition before Christmas. This article also reported that councillor John McLeod had resigned in protest to the decision, triggering a by-election and its consequential costs.
A month later the second media story was published headlined “Judd tells of agony over ward decision”. According to this story New Plymouth District Mayor Andrew Judd had experienced somewhat of a backlash to his decision to back Māori wards and feelings were running so high that he may have committed political suicide. Mayor Judd is quoted as stating that he never knew (the community) was so divided and never in his wildest dreams expected that Māori wards would be an issue.
The introduction of Māori wards strikes at the very heart of local democracy and is a very important and significant decision. The question this raises, given the controversy that has ensued, is what input did the community have prior to the decision being made?
Information obtained from the council advised that a diverse range of views around Māori had been well articulated to the Council in recent years, and as a result no formal community engagement process was undertaken as it was considered that the range of community views was well known. This advice was supported by a list of names of people who had in the past led deputations to the council. However, receiving deputations does not necessarily provide a representative viewpoint and certainly does not qualify as good practice community engagement.
An added consideration is the council’s community engagement policy that was in force at the time this decision was made. Under the policy, the council would consult with the public whenever a significant decision was to be made and there was time to do so or a legal requirement to consult. Of particular relevance under this policy are decisions described as being significant to “well-being” and “community”. Well-being is described as the impacts upon the current and future cultural, economic, environmental and social well-being of the district or region and community as any persons who are likely to be particularly affected by or interested in the issue, proposal, decision or matter.
Based on the council’s consultation policy, the decision to introduce a Māori Ward is significant in terms of well-being and community and this should have triggered a community engagement process. Had this been done then the current controversy should have been avoided, the cost of a by-election would not have arisen at this time, and the potential for a costly referendum could also have been avoided. In addition, this was a great opportunity for the council to build better relationships with its community, add to social capital and create a more engaged District with which to work with on future decisions.