Pressure from Hamilton Community Council heard by Local Government Commission, funder says council ‘out of reach of many’

Understanding the nuances of the neighborhood, “village democracy” and making engagement less daunting were the reasons given by community council funders.  Pictured are representatives of the Local Government Commission and Hamilton City Council listening to the submissions.

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Understanding the nuances of the neighborhood, “village democracy” and making engagement less daunting were the reasons given by community council funders. Pictured are representatives from the Local Government Commission and Hamilton City Council listening to the submissions.

Establishing another layer of council bureaucracy in Hamilton’s most deprived neighborhoods will help restore “village democracy” to the city, supporters say.

Arguments for the creation of community councils in Hamilton were presented to the Commission on Local Government this month, led by the Waikato community.

The commission will report its decision to Hamilton City Council by April 11, with the outcome potentially having a significant impact on the October council election.

Supporters of community councils have called on the commission to introduce councils in time for this year’s elections. If successful, the creation of the new entities will add to a series of electoral changes already underway.

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Hamilton City Council has pledged to create two Maori wards and will transition to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system this election, replacing the First Past the Post (FPP) system.

Holly Snape, chief executive of Community Waikato, said there was plenty of time to establish community councils in October.

Having a nuanced conversation with residents about community councils has been difficult during a global pandemic, Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate (file photo) said.

Christel Yardley / Stuff

Having a nuanced conversation with residents about community councils has been difficult during a global pandemic, Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate (file photo) said.

“Community councils encourage this approach to village democracy: by the people, for the people,” Snape told commission members.

“We want community councils to be that real mechanism for strengthening communities through active neighborhood engagement. Truly understand the nuances of a problem [at a] neighborhood level and responding appropriately becomes impossible as our city grows.

Neil Tolan, who runs the Western Community Centre, said many residents find the thought of speaking at a council meeting daunting and overwhelming. The creation of community councils in the more disadvantaged suburbs of Hamilton could help residents re-engage with the council.

Neil Tolan runs the Western Community Center in Hamilton and says many residents find speaking at council meetings an overwhelming experience (file photo)

Tom Lee / Stuff

Neil Tolan runs the Western Community Center in Hamilton and says many residents find speaking at council meetings an overwhelming experience (file photo)

“I’ve seen a lot of people in the community not engaging with the council. Decisions that affect their day-to-day lives are beyond the reach of many of them,” Tolan said.

Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate addressed the commission as part of the council’s delegation and said elected members had agreed to consider piloting two community committees after the 2022 election.

There has been no “clear and definitive push” for community councils when considering council representation following the decision to adopt Maori wards.

“There was some feeling about how we could better engage with our community and whether community councils would be the mechanism or not,” Southgate said.

Former Hamilton Mayor Margaret Evans wants community councils to be phased in, starting with the city's most disengaged suburbs (file photo)

Christel Yardley / Stuff

Former Hamilton Mayor Margaret Evans wants community councils to be phased in, starting with the city’s most disengaged suburbs (file photo)

“Because he [community boards] wasn’t something we originally proposed, it wasn’t strongly supported, and there were already enough changes on the table.

In response, Margaret Evans, a former mayor of Hamilton, said community councils have become a hot topic in the city. The best approach would be to introduce councils gradually, starting with the most disengaged and disadvantaged areas of the city.

“Let them choose their own leaders, let them choose their own agenda, let them negotiate their role with the city council…please give us that advice in October,” Evans said.

Councilors were updated on the Local Government Commission appeal at the March council meeting, including when the decision is due. A staff report on the process of establishing a trial of community committees is expected in June.