The impending removal of rural ward councilors in Gisborne has prompted a range of backlash from elected officials as the region prepares for significant representation changes in the upcoming election.
Last week the Local Government Commission published the outcome of a March hearing in which Gisborne District Council proposed a new arrangement of six urban ward councillors, two rural ward councilors and five Maori neighborhood.
The council is currently made up of nine urban ward councilors and four rural ward councillors.
While the introduction of Maori ward councilors was approved by the commission – a change the council voted on unanimously in 2020 – the watchdog opted for the council’s original proposal: eight ward councilors generals and five Maori ward councillors.
The councilors of the rural quarters, four in number, would be completely relieved of their functions.
Following the announcement, Mayor Rehette Stoltz said she understands rural communities would be disappointed with the decision, but council respects what the commission landed on.
Stoltz’s overwhelming vote in November had swung the council in favor of keeping rural neighborhoods.
But some councilors celebrated the result.
Talk to Local democracy reportsCouncilor Tony Robinson said it was a historic decision for Tairāwhiti and would result in the most democratic election ever held in the region.
“The ability for anyone outside the city limits to be able to choose eight councilors instead of two is as democratic as it gets for the general slate,” he said.
Robinson believed it was wrong to suggest that city dwellers could not understand the needs of the rural community.
“Just because we live on a country road and have experience with an overflowing culvert doesn’t mean you’re in a much better position to deal with this issue.
“We’re going to have Maori seats, we’re going to have Tairāwhiti-wide representation. It’s a new day for democracy in Tairāwhiti.”
Shannon Dowsing agreed, saying the region had the opportunity to choose a council from among the best candidates.
Dowsing said he made his case against keeping rural neighborhoods based on two people’s failure to represent the diversity of the wider region.
“What do Hexton and Hicks Bay have in common? Or Makorori and Manutuke? Geography doesn’t define us and the combination [of] such a large area does not serve any of the distinct communities within.”
Debbie Gregory said she was “ecstatic” to hear the outcome, seeing the change as a fresh start and not a loss.
Gregory said the council had been dominated by non-Maori rural interests since its inception, with politics shaped by that dominant demographic.
Rural representation was important, but would still be present through the STV voting system and lobby groups, she believed.
No voice for rural people?
Meanwhile, Rural Councilor Pat Seymour feared rural townships were potentially left speechless.
“Our townships and our industries will come together, I’m sure, and make sure they elect rural people from among those eight,” she said.
Rural Ward Councilor Kerry Worsnop preferred not to comment, saying it would be best to speak with the rural community who had put a “massive effort” into the submissions.
For MP Josh Wharehinga, the main result of the committee’s decision was the retention of Maori ward seats, something he had been reluctant to celebrate too soon despite the council’s unanimous vote in November 2020.
He said he had publicly expressed support for maintaining rural representation, but felt that part of the community was resilient.
“They’re really well coordinated. I imagine my rural whānau are going to mobilize quite strongly,” he said.
The changes come into effect during this year’s local elections, scheduled for October 8.
The district has been divided into wards based on a distinction between rural and urban communities since the council was established in 1989.
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest information service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers’ Association and NZ On Air.