Central Government is pushing for water reform and local government is pushing back.
Last week, 10 councils in the Local Government Zone 6 mayors and chairs group wrote to Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta because of serious concerns about the timeframe for decision-making for the Three Waters reform.
September-October was crunch time for councils to decide whether to opt in or out of the reforms, during which time they were expected to have engaged with the public about the effects on the way water services would be delivered, and report back to the Government.
The group believed that the Government had failed to provide adequate information for any effective engagement to occur and, in the letter to the minister, called for a pause in the process.
Group chairman Clutha Mayor Bryan Cadogan said rushing the engagement process would not provide for good decision-making, and this could result in adverse and costly consequences for communities, councils and the Government for many years to come.
Group member and Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult said the speed was causing “near panic”.
“Councils are determined that the outcome from this needs to be fair and favourable for all.
“The current rush is introducing what is near panic in some quarters and is singularly unhelpful.
“We look forward to more and better information from Government and positive engagement with the minister.”
In her response reported last week, Ms Mahuta was firm on the timeframe for feedback and damning of mayors “who have been asked to engage in the process playing political games with their communities’ futures”.
She said pausing the reform programme would not change the reality that “the status quo is simply not working”.
“There are some councils who do not want anything to change and I accept the scale of change is daunting, but not the intent.
“We have asked for feedback during August and September that will inform the next set of decisions for Cabinet,” she said.
It was understood councils that had not elected to opt out by the end of this year, would automatically be opted in.
The Otago-Southland pause request came just days after the Canterbury mayoral forum called for a delay until new regulator Taumata Arowai started setting Three Waters standards.
While acknowledging the rationale for a pause, Mr Cadogan said it could be a year before the regulatory board was formed. He was asking for a shorter period.
“There is a critical difference here because I believe we have been realistic in our request.
“It is a very uncertain time for the public, and especially the workforce involved. Consequently, our delay is shorter and quantified, and aligns with the ethos of all councils to embrace our public and together make a well informed decision in a timely manner.
“We have till the end of September to offer the minister suggestions of changes to her chosen path, and I suspect things are about to get very hectic as we enter the spiky end of proceedings.”
Southland National MP Joseph Mooney backed the slowdown, claiming that the Government was blocking councils from consulting meaningfully with their ratepayers as required by the Local Government Act.
Meanwhile, the Central Otago District Council would continue to engage with the public, Central Otago Mayor Tim Caodogan said.
“We still have a timeframe for the decision to opt out if we choose to go that way to be made some time this year, although the exact date has yet to be given.
“We will continue to operate under that timeframe with endeavouring to get the public as informed as possible before consultation later in the year.”