Local Government Commission axes Gisborne's rural wards
Gisborne District Council will be without rural ward councillors at its next election following a Local Government Commission hearing, missing out on its preferred option.
The decision was announced by the commission on Thursday, and comes three weeks after the council attended a hearing along with iwi partners and appellants.
The outcome means the district will be divided into two wards for the election in October and in 2025: one general ward made up of eight councillors, and one Māori ward made up of five councillors.
Rural wards - there are four - will be dissolved entirely.
Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz said she understood the rural communities would be disappointed by the decision, but said the council respected the commission's decision.
"That does not necessarily mean there won't be rural voices around the council table at the end of the year. With targeted campaigning and the use of the STV voting system, that can still be achieved."
The hearing was the final step in the council's representation review, a process that was triggered by a November 2020 decision to introduce five Māori ward councillors.
Although the introduction of Māori ward seats was guaranteed going into the March 17 hearing, the make-up of the remaining eight seats was still up for question.
The council's final proposal included six city general ward councillors, two rural general ward councillors, and five Māori ward councillors.
The commission decided the council's original proposal - eight general ward councillors and five Māori ward councillors - was a better fit for the region.
In its determination, the commission said it acknowledged concerns over the potential loss of rural voice in a district-wide general ward, however, it was not convinced the council's final proposal was the best arrangement.
It said two significant changes in the district's electoral system had informed the review: the introduction of Single Transferable Voting (STV) and the division of the electoral population into Māori roll and general voters.
Because of those changes, a rural general ward guaranteed but also limited rural representation for general voters to two councillors.
"Conversely, a district-wide general ward in an STV electoral system provides a greater opportunity for effective representation for the rural population," the determination said.
Rural general voters make up over 23% of the district's general voting numbers, meaning they are statistically likely to influence the election of two councillors. A district-wide ward also allows rural voters the opportunity to influence the election of urban-based candidates who had a strong affiliation to rural areas.
The commission said under Single Transferable Voting, a district-wide general ward provided a greater opportunity for effective rural representation.
The journey to Thursday's decision has been a long one for the council, beginning in August 2020 when it consulted with the community on establishing Māori wards.
Following a November 2020 decision to implement those wards, the council then consulted with the community on its initial proposal of how the council should be made up.
A common theme of the consultation was that electing councillors on a district-wide basis was the best guarantee for community representation.
In August 2021, the council notified its proposal of eight general ward councillors and five Māori ward councillors, receiving 1149 submissions by the deadline.
A key focus of those submissions was the need to retain specific rural representation.
In November 2021, the council settled on its final proposal of two rural ward councillors, six city ward councillors, and five Māori ward councillors when Mayor Stoltz had the casting vote after councillor Isaac Hughes switched his initial vote to support the rural ward.
The new proposal drew seven appeals and 119 objections.
Common sentiments included a fear the proposed rural ward was too large for two councillors, that Māori on the general electoral roll would struggle to secure representation in a two-member rural ward, and that the urban and rural division was "artificial".
The March 17 hearing with the Local Government Commission was attended by the council's iwi partners and two appellants: Pene Haapu Brown representing Te Aitanga ā Māhaki Trust, and Manu Caddie.
The council's iwi partners -Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust, Te Aitanga ā Māhaki Trust, Te Rūnanganui o Ngāti Porou, and Ngāi Tāmanuhiri - supported Māori wards but emphasised their creation should not replace engagement with mana whenua, iwi and hapū.
Some of the points made by the appellants included a confidence in the council's ability to reach the farthest parts of the motu without needing rural councillors, and that a rural ward electing only two councillors disenfranchised Māori on the general electoral roll.
Appellant Manu Caddie told Local Democracy Reporting he was pleased with the outcome.
"It's good we can put the artificial divide between rural and urban residents aside and have our elected officials representing the whole region," he said.
Rural councillor Pat Seymour said rural townships and hinterland were a significant part of the district, and had potentially been left without a voice.
"Our townships and our industries will get together, I have no doubt, and make sure they elect rural people in the mix of those eight."
The changes will come into effect at the local body elections this year, set for
The district has been divided into wards based on a distinction between rural and urban communities since the council's establishment in 1989.
Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air