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Saturday, 2 February 2008

MARRYING THE ISLANDS TO THE ALMOST-ISLAND

When Rudyard Kipling said 'East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet,' he cannot have been thinking of islanders and mainlanders. Otherwise he would have used a stronger word than 'never.'

Islands are places apart, islanders are people apart. They march to the beat of very different drums. Mainlanders, especially the city sort, are what they are. They cannot help being like that, so we mustn't be too hard on them. But when they dominate our lives the result is 'Ouch!' Such as in the infamous Proposed 'Hauraki Gulf Islands' District Plan being rammed down our throats by The Machine.

They might, for a time, shower money on us, but we pay a high price for it. We lose our independence. 'He who pays the piper calls the tune.' And when the city is heading for a mega-city, and thinks it can be 'a world-class city', the tune is one that no one sane would call music.

The law says you have to have at least 10,000 people before you can have your own council. We have 8628, so we cannot have one of exactly our mind. The best alternative is to get as close as possible. We are islands, Thames-Coromandel is a peninsular--which means 'almost an island'--and we also have a similar outlook, geography, etc., and we are all immersed in the mis-named Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, so we have a community of interest in law.

That in essence is why, soon after I was elected to the Waiheke Community Board as the token maverick and rebel, I called the mayor of Thames-Coromandel, Philippa Barriball, to ask if her council would take us so that we could get shot of the The Machine.

That first forty minutes spoke volumes. At the induction seminars for community boards, John Banks said his door was open, and to make an appointment if we wanted to see him. I tried. Twice. I'm still waiting. With Philippa (that's what they call her--not The Mayor, or Her Worship), I just called 07/868-0200 and asked. I was put through to her very engaging personal assistant, Bev Bremner, who said she was out of the office but if I left a message she would get her to call back. Thirty minutes later she did. She turned out to be an intelligent, able, people-oriented person with a nice sense of humour.

She asked me to talk to the rest of her council (eight men apart from her). No one said no. Two said yes 100%, the rest ranged from 35-40% up to about 70%. Three quotations stand out. John Morrissey said 'You are the closest kin we've got', and Philippa, when talking about consulation, said, 'We like to go out and tap people on the shoulder.' When talking of the regional council, Environment Waikato, she said, 'We are very fortunate.'

It was such a relief not having to explain things, the way we have to, all the time, to city-siders.

Right from the beginning, to her and every councillor, I asked for four 'Big Ticket' items: (1) A high level of autonomy; (2) A financial firewall, so we won't get lumbered with peninsular stuff; (3) Shift the rating system to improved value, not capital value; (4) Scrap the Proposed 'Hauraki Gulf' District Plan.

The short answer was yes, but not quite as I anticipated, because they are interleaved.

A high degree of autonomy is partly taken care of by the list of delegations for their community boards. They are not the Rolls-Royce ones they have in Christchurch but they are a high-end BMW. And because community boards in Thames-Coromandel have heavy involvement in setting budgets, and indirect involvement in setting rates, the result is far, far more autonomy than under Auckland. And in democracy self-determination is percentages. At the moment the islands have 2.2% of registered electors (6524 out of 285,779). If we were with Thames-Coromandel we would have 23.3% (6524 out of 6524+21,472=27996). Ten times the clout. They now have nine councillors, so we could expect to have three: one for Great Barrier and two for that other island. Plus an islands councillor on the regional council.

The financial firewall and the rating system are also interleaved and have a bearing on autonomy. Thames-Coromandel studiedwhat happened in Noosa, north of Brisbane, where rates went stratospheric and everyone left but the rich, leaving no one to do the work. So they have to pay $25 an hour to people to serve coffee, and pay $7 a cup. Thames-Coromandel does not want it community destroyed like that, so after the 'tapping on the shoulder' they have a rating system in which only 19% of your bill is a general rate on capital value. The rest is fixed charges for stuff like rubbish, and targeted rates all based on on improved value. So when your capital valuation goes to the moon your rates don't follow because only 19% of your bill is affected. For example, a $1000 bill would only go to $1190 even if your valuation doubled.

The targeted rates might be things that covered the whole district, or things that a particular community wants. For instance, one community wanted a swimming-pool, another a new library. The council said yes, and put in a rate for just that project in just that community, based on improved value. So the low- and middle-income don't get socked but the community gets what its people want.

That system is also part of the reason why the proposed district plan would be scrapped, on top of the obvious that Thames-Coromandel would not want to take over Auckland's shemozzle, because if we were to continue with a humungous series of hearings, at great cost, the whole mess would have be paid for by a targeted rate on us, so our community boards would vote to scrap it to avoid being lynched. A very nice democratic feedback loop.

Life with the peninsular would not be heaven on earth. Just better than life with a city.

Can it happen? Yes. Philippa did not know the process, and calling Local Government New Zealand, which did not know either and directed me to the Local Government Commission (LGC), the statutory body that decides which local bodies we have and where their boundaries will be.

Donald Riezebos, the LGC's CEO floored me by saying, 'You don't have to ask the councils.' He said there are three ways of starting an application to the LGC to move a boundary. In our case, Auckland City Council could ask, or the Thames-Coromandel District Council, or a petition, organised by 'the proposer' (me in this case), signed by only 10% of the registered electors: 653 from all the islands.

Then a rigorous process of consultation and submissions begins (see the PDF on www.lgc.govt.nz), which cannot be stopped by any council. They have to go down the railway-lines of the law whether they like it or not till the LGC rules one way or the other (up to twelve months later). Its main concern is to make sure we get good local government.

I think we have a good chance. So please sign the petition when you see it about (on Waiheke at the Saturday market, or the Citizens' Advice Bureau or ask for it at the Placemaker's counter; on Great Barrier on some shop-counters). The more signatures we get above that 10% the more likely it is that the Local Government Commission will say yes and we'll be free of The Machine.