Paekākāriki Community Board members (L to R) top: Dan O'Connell, Sophie Handford, Tina Pope; bottom: Jess Hortop and Holly Ewens

Community boards are the flax roots of communities – have your say

There is little doubt community boards are one of the key ways Councils keeps in touch with the flax roots of the communities they represent. Yet, after a representation review that saw residents want Council to be closer to community, Kāpiti Coast Councillors support a proposal that threatens to uproot the established pā harakeke and replace it with a single tree on untenable roots. Paekākāriki Community Board chair Holly Ewens shares her thoughts on the proposed changes.

The Kāpiti Coast District Council has carried out a review of how it should be represented at the 2022 local body elections (under the Local Electoral Act, all councils have to do this at least every six years). In the first half of 2021 KCDC worked with an independent research company engaging people from Kāpiti communities to get qualitative information on what they think about their representation. This information was packaged as a document to help Council put together an initial proposal.

The research found that there is a perception of ‘too many layers’ of governance and that diversity was lacking in elected representatives. As a means to address this KCDC has proposed to disestablish community boards and instead support ward councillors to hold drop-in clinics in the community in their place. Existing or new community groups would be accessed to inform or work on local projects alongside councillors and KCDC staff. The proposal is now open for consultation until 4 October, and it’s very important that you have your say.

It is obvious from the strength of support from councillors on this proposal there is an appetite for change in how communities are best represented along the Kāpiti Coast. As a passionate advocate for increased diversity in elected members, I applaud councillors for wanting to enhance diversity and engage more widely and deeply with the communities they represent. But I don’t think this proposal is the answer. This preferred option threatens to negate the very objectives the review set out to address. We need to be mindful to not make change for change’s sake alone.

The Paekākāriki Community Board has concerns about the process that the review team based their recommendations on. One hundred and fifty people across the district were consulted – with a focus on capturing input from those who don’t usually engage in council business. Of the 150 who participated in the research it is noted that, “A small minority of those involved in the research could speak to direct experience of community boards.” We question how a recommendation to abolish community boards can be based on the experience of a few of people, and have a few other questions too.

Is the premise that a larger area means a better pool of quality candidates an accurate assumption? If it were true, as fellow board member Jess Hortop noted, then Aotearoa New Zealand should never bother competing at the Olympic Games.

Can community boards be a gateway to quality councillors? Many councillors learned their democratic ropes in community boards, which are a pathway to quality councillors.  Looking around the council table now, we can see senior councillors who have travelled this path. These councillors should ask themselves whether they would have stood for council if not for standing for the community board roles first?  They should ask themselves what they learned in their community board role to ready them for their current role? The connections they made, the understanding of the different parts and diversity of their communities and their understanding of the statutory requirements of a public role.

Where is democracy in all of this? Community boards are proposed to be replaced with hand-picked advisers for any community feedback required. Who would handpick these people (as opposed to democratically-elected local representatives) and on what criteria? Will people with a history of asking ‘difficult’ questions be picked or avoided?  And how will this increase diversity?

Will new or existing community groups want to step up to support councillors and KCDC staff on what appears to be a voluntary basis? Why would community groups want to spend long hours engaging with authorities with which they share no common function? Most community groups are specialist interest groups, already struggling with volunteer numbers for their own causes. Community boards support the functions of these groups through funding and advocacy. They also make connections between these groups and wider agencies and share information that supports the groups’ objectives.  

Community boards are often privy to direct information from agencies ahead of community groups and residents. This helps the board to strategise approaches and to seek out advice and current information from multiple groups and agencies – for example, iwi, Waka Kōtahi/NZTA, KCDC, NZ Police, District Health Boards, Age Concern, Greater Wellington Regional Council and local initiatives and individuals. Our statutory status as elected representatives helps us to engage with these parties under an expectation of return engagement. There is a real danger that without this function large agencies will have a choice on whether they engage with the community or not.

How will this design meet the brief of expanding and deepening representation? Most community groups are already engaged with the Paekākāriki Community Board and can often include the same people in the community. This runs a risk of amplifying voices already in the room and may not capture the voice of the disengaged residents the proposed changes set out to capture.

Who would facilitate consultation and community hui? Track records show that when council and other large agencies organise consultation, the nature and timings of hui and consultations conflict for a majority of our residents and hence engagement can be poor. 

What about the grants community boards administer? There is recognition but no plans for how funding will be accessed that is presently managed by community boards. Will this also be the role of these community groups? If so, a conflict of interest may disempower these groups from accessing funding. Elected members swear an oath on appointment, yet community groups — who according to this proposal may influence decisions and appoint funding — do not.

For many residents, applying to the Paekākāriki Community Board for funding often serves as an introduction to the role of the board and its public meetings. We witness residents regularly returning to meetings after this ‘initiation’ (when they realise it’s quite informative and really not that scary!) just to listen and contribute to public speaking, to be informed by presentations, and sometimes knit, drink cups of tea and connect with fellow residents. It is difficult to imagine any accessible, democratic replacement.

Has Paekākāriki been effectively engaged with and subsequently had little input into the findings of the review? We have real concerns about the quality of the engagement on which the review assumptions—and so the recommended options—were based on.

To our knowledge, one resident and one community board member turned up for the workshop on representation review, no pop-up was arranged for our market to seek further input and there were difficulties securing phone interviews due to how engaged our village is. We have requested more information about just what input was sought and received by the reviewers from our hapori. That request which is currently going through the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) with a hopeful reply of 20 September 2021.

“Paekākāriki is the district’s most southern hub. It is not as easily connected by car as the other ‘strings in the pearl’. Queen Elizabeth Park means people in cars access it only from State Highway 1. We noticed that many from Paekākāriki were very engaged with, or at least aware of, council matters. Many residents are passionate about a few key issues, such as the sea wall. Residents in this community seem more confident to pass their voice to Council, and many are actively doing so.” – Community Voice, report summary

Relationships of four vs the relationships of one: Community board members —by the very nature of election— bring extensive networks and diverse interests to the table. Between our current board members, we share active representation on more than 10 community groups and have ongoing relationships with many groups and individuals. There is concern that one ward councillor (likely from outside of the village) will have to take on substantially more work with no extra remuneration and less chance of success in forming and maintaining trusted relationships with diverse pockets of society.

Additionally, drawing from the local area means the relationships that community board members bring are not only more extensive but are the result of longer-term relationships built over time and over varying experiences.

Community boards are a buffer for council staff. Boards are the first receiver of community concerns and can be pro-active team players, filtering communication to appropriate councillors or staff. Often community boards put residents in contact with the appropriate authority or follow up concerns or problems themselves with other agencies. This happens many times in a week when residents contact community boards with issues outside KCDC jurisdiction. If this accessible filter is removed, staff will be dealing with disgruntled people directly. Or, on top of an unreasonable workload, the ward councillor will also be dealing with these people and organisations.

Where is the support for community boards? It is proposed to support ward councillors in a multitude of ways — all of which could be applied to community boards to enable them to engage more actively with their communities. Why has this level of support never been offered to community boards and if it was, would it result in better representation?

Could the Paekākāriki Community Board be an exemplar? It has been acknowledged by councillors and staff alike, that the PCB exercises its legislative and delegated functions effectively. It would be beneficial to examine what factors could contribute to this success — size, demographic, geography, approach, existing community engagement tools — and to unpack the challenges that other community boards might have and what can learnings and support can be implemented.

Many of you will have your own questions, thoughts, or maybe you like the proposed idea? Either way, the Kāpiti Coast District Council need your voice in the room. This is the right of people to have a say in their representation – this is democracy!

Pā harakeke takes time to establish, it takes many plants to foster flourishing diversity. It’s not easy work. It takes tending, it takes management, it takes feeding — it takes kaitiakitanga, but if treated with care and value can be a resource for all.

What you can do

Make a submission in the consultation process here. Closes 4 October.

You can be as as detailed (or not) as you like in the submission — and you certainly don’t have to agree with us! Opt to speak at public speaking time, or come along and support us as we speak on 19 October.

Write letters of support for the Paekākāriki Community Board that we can use in our submission. Email: [email protected] Closes 30 Sept

Engage in on the online kōrero on our Facebook page here — although this won’t count as your submission folks!

Talk with your neighbours — consultation during a lockdown is tricky business. Alert levels pending, KCDC plans to have hard copies available if preferred.

Process from here:

26 AugustCouncil determines initial proposal for community consultation.
1 September–4 OctoberConsultation – seek community comment on initial proposal.
19 OctoberHearing of submissions.
26 OctoberCouncil considers submissions.
11 NovemberCouncil adopts final proposal.
13 November–13 DecemberOne month for appeals or objections.
14 DecemberIf no appeals or objections are received, the Council’s final proposal will be adopted, appeals or objections are received, Council’s final proposal goes to the Local Government Commission for a decision by 11 April 2022.
Image: Kāpiti Coast District Council