Most Hawke’s Bay residents probably sighed with relief when 2013 ended, thinking the year of politics in the region was over, with October’s election putting such distracting matters to rest.

However, the region’s political strife appears to be just heating up.

Key developments so far in 2014 include:

The Board of Inquiry charged with the fate of the Tukituki catchment gets a one-month extension in the deadline for making its decisions, signaling that critics of the proposed scheme have made an impact.

The region’s largest iwi, represented by Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi Inc (NKII), announces that it currently opposes the proposed CHB dam, and will pursue legal review if its concerns are not satisfactorily addressed.

A deep divide splits the Regional Council and NKII, centered on the Tukituki decision-making process, but with further implications.

CHB Mayor Peter Butler suffers personal meltdown, threatening Māori for opposing the CHB dam he wants the rest of Hawke’s Bay to pay for.

Public alarm revives over the present state of the Tukituki River, with cows in the river and concern about the efficacy of CHB’s sewage treatment.

With submissions closed on the reorganisation plan advanced by the Local Government Commission, and public hearings and a public survey soon to follow, advocates on both sides step up their campaigning, with virtually daily ripostes in Hawke’s Bay Today.

A major bun fight breaks out between Hastings and Napier officials regarding alleged mishandling and misrepresentation of key aspects of the freshly constructed and re-opened MTG Hawke’s Bay.

An even fiercer dispute erupts over the DHB’s cancellation of funding for a popular – and exceptionally successful – diabetes treatment practice.

Oil and gas springs to life in Wairoa with a major exploration well, which is sure to fuel public angst throughout the region.

Finally, the main parties decide who will represent them to contest the national election in the Napier and Tukituki electorates.

Plenty of action to amuse, excite or infuriate those interested in the region’s public affairs. Each of these controversies shapes citizen regard (high or low) for the responsiveness, transparency and intelligence of our public bodies and officials.

And, interestingly, the swirl of contested issues is generating new and occasionally strange alliances amongst the politically active, while in other circles certain topics are just not to be discussed!

Board of Inquiry

In the view of John Cheyne, who chairs HB’s broad environmental coalition (Te Taio) and others, the Tukituki Board returned from its Christmas recess with seemingly greater regard for the concerns expressed by dam critics, as well as charges by Ngäti Kahungunu that it had not been properly consulted as the Regional Council’s plans were developed.

The Board asked Fish & Game experts to provide an alternative plan for managing pollutants in the Tukituki catchment, and that was presented cogently in the final days of the hearing. It provides for management of both phosphorus and nitrogen, with more restrictive limits.

The Board also publicly noted the concerns of Ngāti Kahungunu regarding consultation. That seemed like a shot across the bow to the HBRC/HBRIC camp, and a flurry of negotiations began between them and the various Mäori parties. This controversy is fully reported in Mark Sweet’s article herein, Divide to Rule?

Two joint memoranda were filed with the Board as a result of these negotiations; but even as I write, the players involved hold different views as to where the dispute stands. NKII’s chairman Ngahiwi Tomoana indicates that the most sensitive points in the proposals remain in dispute, and legal review of the entire process has not been ruled out. Quoting from the final memorandum submitted to the BOI: “In view of the absence of agreement on these unresolved matters, the formal position of NKII and Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga (and the other Heretaunga parties) must remain one of objection to PC 6 and the RWSS. This position is acknowledged by the Applicants.”

While these negotiations were underway, the Board requested and was granted a one month extension of its stipulated deadline for making a decision. In its request the BOI stressed the complexity of the issues involved and the scope of technical disagreement on key points regarding water quality, water quantity and effects of land use intensification. The Board further noted the far-reaching implications of this decision for other waterways in Hawke’s Bay, as well as the precedent-setting importance of the decision for all of New Zealand.

These are precisely the reasons many in Hawke’s Bay — Ngāti Kahungunu, Fish & Game, the entire environmental community, Transparent Hawke’s Bay and others — sought a delay before triggering a Board of Inquiry in the first place. Of course that original request fell on deaf ears at the then-HBRC, as well as EPA.

On its face, the Board’s request affirmed that objections to the Plan Change and dam are not frivolous or the misguided sport of nutters. The request acknowledged that the most fundamental aspects of these proposals have been challenged by substantial technical evidence.

So now the BOI’s draft decision is due no later than 15 April, with its final decision no later than 28 May.

Dam viability

The BOI decision will deal with the environmental parameters of managing the Tukituki catchment (Plan Change 6), as well as establish any environmental conditions associated with the dam itself, should the Regional Council decide to proceed with it.

On a separate track, the HBRC has commissioned two independent reports that will be critical to evaluating the financial and economic viability of the proposed dam. One study, to be completed by Deloitte, will examine the financial and economic case for the dam and the risks involved in an HBRC (i.e., ratepayer) investment, if any, of $80 million in it.

Deloitte has been given four weeks to complete its assessment, once HBRIC formally puts it ‘business case’ for the dam on the table. It’s not clear when that will happen, as conceivably environmental mitigation requirements ordered by the BOI (in April) could affect costs for the scheme. Thus, the business case could be delayed until late April, with Deloitte’s report not then due until late May.

What is not clear is whether Deloitte will confer with any experts apart from those already involved as HBRIC consultants on the project. To Pauline Elliott of Transparent Hawke’s Bay, this is a key factor in establishing the reliability of the underlying data and assumptions the assessment must consider.

HBRC chairman Fenton Wilson has indicated only that both the HBRIC business case and the Deloitte review will be available to the public.

A second study, to be completed by consulting firm Nimmo-Bell, will identify and evaluate alternative investments of scale that could be made to advance the strategic goals of the Regional Council. In other words, how does the dam stack up against other possible regional investments? This study is already underway, with a March delivery date.

Dam decision timetable

Once the BOI decision and all the pertinent economic studies are in hand, the Regional Council will be in position to frame and launch a ‘special consultative procedure’. The Local Government Act prescribes this process, which must last no less than one month and include an opportunity for submitters to be heard by council.

Of course, to set this process in motion will require a vote by the Regional Council to test the dam proposition (or some other alternative), since the public must be provided a specific proposal to submit on.

From where this councillor sits, it’s hard to see how that tentative decision could be taken before May at the earliest…

Of course, meeting even this schedule presumes that neither NKII, Hawke’s Bay Fish & Game, or the Environmental Defence Society (each of whom has raised the prospect), nor any other party, seeks judicial review of the BOI process.

Amalgamation

With public submissions closed on its preferred One Council option, the Local Government Commission (LGC) moves on to public hearings, expected to begin in mid-April.

What the commissioners will read is that amalgamation will bring about either much needed, unified leadership – or utter ruination – for Hawke’s Bay. They are unlikely to be surprised by either set of submissions. Councils have taken expected positions – Napier, CHB and Wairoa opposed; Hastings for; and HBRC sitting on the fence, with a 5-4 split amongst its councillors.

Proponents of amalgamation have made the only consequential recommendations that would change the structure envisioned in the LGC’s original proposal. A Better Hawke’s Bay (ABHB) has recommended a larger Hawke’s Bay Council – with 18 councillors instead of 9 – in order to provide additional representation for Wairoa and Central Hawke’s Bay. Their model is as follows:

ABHB’s submission offsets the larger council with smaller Local Boards than proposed by the Commission (24 elected members instead of 37). Much has been said in public debate about the desirability of Local Boards instead of the proposed Community Boards. Local Boards would have more authority and durability, and arguably would go further to protect community decision-making on local issues. However, they must be authorized by legislation that awaits enactment in Parliament (expected in June).

Sure to get a rise in any amalgamation debate is the debt issue. The LGC has proposed six-year ring fencing of councils’ existing debt, but has made clear that this time period can be extended as long as the new council wishes. ABHB has recommended that existing debt be ring fenced until repaid, however long that period might be.

During the LGC’s hearings, much of the same ground will be re-plowed. The media will report further on the claims and counter-claims. Some voters will harden their existing positions; others might just begin to pay attention.

And then a key step will be taken, most likely in May. The LGC will commission its own professionally-conducted public opinion survey on its preferred option. The outcome of the survey will be an important factor as the Commission decides how – indeed whether – to proceed to the next phase of its work … formulating its final reorganisation plan. The LGC has noted repeatedly that it will look at evidence of support for reorganisation at each step in its process.

First Mayor of Hawke’s Bay

As leading politicians carry on so vociferously about amalgamation, their high profile on the issue has begun to stir up another calculation in voters’ minds … If amalgamation does occur, who will be the first captain of the ship?
For many voters, the structure of our local government is less important than who might be at the wheel. Who would be the first Mayor of Hawke’s Bay?

Without doubt, Lawrence Yule is the elected leader most strongly championing amalgamation. And the top job probably interests him. The most visible elected opponent is Bill Dalton; but would he decline to campaign for leadership of a structure he so ardently seeks to convince voters will fail?

If voters consider amalgamation itself is change enough, they might favour balancing that change by giving the top job to an experienced government hand. Yule and Dalton meet that test. But so too do elected officials like Kevin Atkinson (as the DHB’s top vote-getter, the only individual elected region-wide), Chris Tremain, and Rick Barker… or perhaps a resurrected Barbara Arnott.

On the other hand, if amalgamation wins public approval in a referendum, maybe the message will be that voters are hungry for change across the board … re-arrange the chairs and put fresh faces in them, starting with the top job. What fresh face up to the task of serving as Mayor of Hawke’s Bay comes to your mind?

BayBuzz would like to stir this pot with an early straw poll of our readers. And so you see the ‘Ballot’ we’ve provided on the previous page. Mail your ballot in; or you can more easily take the poll online at www.baybuzz.co.nz

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