Procedure to set up Maori ward legally correct

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(by Tracy Neal) An independent legal opinion on the city council’s procedure to set up a Maori ward in Nelson said the advice given to the council was correct, but the process by which the council handled the matter is still open to discussion, Nelson Mayor Aldo Miccio said.

Nelson law firm partner Camilla Owen said while it was correct the council was not legally obliged to consult the community, if a poll was not held as a result of the current petition the council should consider initiating one.

Ms Owen will present her opinion to councillors at Thursday’s city council meeting, after a Nelson lawyer, Ken Beckett, raised concerns around the legality of the move to set up a Maori ward.

Mr Beckett, who has acted for local authorities in the Nelson region for the past 20 years, told the council recently it had breached both the Local Electoral Act and the Local Government Act in the way in which it had set up a Maori ward for the 2013 election.

Mr Beckett made it clear he was not speaking on whether there should be a Maori ward in Nelson, but out of concern for the process that the council had adopted and the implications of its decision made on November 3.

The council voted then to establish a Maori ward in Nelson for the 2013 election, in the event amalgamation of the Nelson and Tasman councils does not go ahead. Since then, there has been an angry public reaction over the lack of consultation. A petition is circulating calling for the council to hold a poll on the matter.

Ms Owen has provided a detailed opinion to councillors, which concludes that the advice given to the council on the procedure to be followed when considering whether to pass a resolution to establish a Maori ward was correct, as it complied with the requirements of the Local Electoral Act.

However, while there was no duty on the council’s part to consult the community ahead of passing that resolution, in Ms Owen’s opinion the council was required to have “turned its mind” to the question of whether the poll required by the act would be sufficient for the council to be able to ascertain the views of the community on this point.

She said the council was open to criticism in terms of its procedure not being “best practice”, especially as there was only a short time in which the council had to make the decision. “It is always possible to consult widely on any matter and where this has not occurred the council can also be criticised. However this is not to be confused with an obligation to consult ahead of passing the resolution, which is not present in the legislative scheme in this instance.”

Ms Owen said if there is to be no poll then the council had to be satisfied it had obtained the views of the community in sufficient detail to inform its decision to pass the resolution. She suggested the council wait for the outcome of the current public petition calling for a poll, and if no poll is held, the council should consider whether to initiate one.

Copies of the legal opinion are included in the public agenda for this week’s meeting. Mr Miccio said the council wanted to be open about the issue and reminded people they are welcome to attend the meeting, which starts at 9am on Thursday, but the issue was not expected to be discussed until around 10.45am.

– The Nelson Mail

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