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Thursday, 28 February 2008

FACT-FINDING VISIT TO THAMES-COROMANDEL

On Wednesday the 27th of February I was in Thames, watching the Thames-Coromandel District Council at work at its regular meeting. If everyone on the islands had seen what I saw, and knew what I have found out over the last few months about how things are done on the peninsula, and could bring themselves to look at it fairly and reasonably, set beside what Auckland dishes out to us, they would be enthusiastic too.

No, the TCDC is not perfect, the streets of Thames are not paved with gold, no one has wings and haloes, they are human and make mistakes, they have their tussles and quarrels, but compared with what we have it looks like paradise.

I could hardly believe my ears when I heard them decide to vote a community board chairman to a council sub-committee. They want boards' input! And when I heard, more than once, from different councillors, a request to refer things to a board for advice, input, consultation, or whatever, I was so suspicious (thank you Auckland for corrupting my mind) that I turned to the woman next to me in the public gallery, a chairman of a community board, and asked her if that was real, if they meant it, if they did it and took notice.

I also talked to her at lunchtime. As it happened she used to be on an Auckland City community board, so has long experience of both sides. I asked her if she wanted to go back to Auckland. 'No.'

Thames-Coromandel's boards virtually set the rates for their areas. They even decide what roading works are to be done. The Council might defer recommended works because of overall budgetary constraints, but the community boards are the ones who decide, at community level, with community input what the priorities are to be. The boards have deep and real input into annual plans, budgets, etc.

'You are like mini councils,' I said.

'Yes,' she replied.

Local government with good emphasis on local.

The mayor, Philippa Barriball, is impressive. So is the CEO, Steve Ruru. And there is obviously a good, smooth, respectful relationship between them. Philippa underlined the 'paradise' by saying it was not the best day for me to come, because the ugly issue of the marina at Whangamata came up. Inwardly I didn't agree with her. It was the best day, because they handled that issue impressively. Steve's setting out of the facts on the big screen in the light of the relevant laws was masterly. Their subsequent debate worked quickly to what seemed to me to be a good resolution along the way to preparing themselves to make a final decision when they have key information.

They did not argue to the man, they argued to the facts, even if the man at a given moment was not the most popular.

The staff too are helpful, they get information quickly, they return calls. And I am not even in their area.

The down-home style of the council building, the low-key council chamber, the island-like size of Thames (population 6756), the way the council meetings are conducted, and the friendly and obliging way the staff function would fit the islands like a glove. In any relationship the most important thing is understanding. They understand, because their minds and hearts are in the same place as ours. Auckland City's can never be.

I was treated in a very friendly way, and it was obviously no accident that my address to the council was put first on the agenda.

If Auckland operated like Thames-Coromandel, at both elected and employed level, there would be no petition to dump it.