Democracy and Consultation

Democracy and Consultation

Recently the Council voted, by majority decision, to change the rating base from capital value to land value.  This was after going through a consultation process in which about 750 of about 1000 submitters opposed the change.

Since then, there has been a flurry of letters complaining that the Council has acted undemocratically and should have followed the wishes of the majority of submitters.  There have even been claims that 75% of ratepayers were opposed to the change.

The latter claim can obviously be disputed.  There are 22,000 rateable properties, and although that does not mean there are 22,000 ratepayers because many people own more than one property and, on the other hand, many properties have more than one owner.  750 out of 22,000 are actually 3.4%.

However, that is not really relevant.  You and I both know that more than 11,000 people are highly unlikely to submit on any issue.  As councillors, we have to consider the submissions we get and make a judgement as to whether the points of view represent majorities, minorities, or majorities of particular sections of the community. 

1000 is on the large side for submission numbers, but we have had much larger submissions and/or petitions in recent years over such matters as the closure of Alfred Street in Rangiora, the Dudley Park Aquatic centre and the proposal to move to wheelie-bin rubbish collection.

It is not just a numbers game, however. I do believe that a democratic society has to consider its minorities as well as follow majority views.  Most of the time this happens because the majorities also recognise that minorities have to be considered.

Consultation is also, therefore, about the views and arguments raised. That is why, after a consultation exercise, you will always hear a governing body debate the issues, not just count the numbers.  The numbers are part of it, but not all.  When we hold hearings, we are not only interested in what submitters want, but also in why. We are interested in convincing arguments.

One brilliant idea from a single submitter can carry a surprising amount of weight!

In the consultation exercise just completed, there were some self-cancelling arguments. I will give an example. Many submitters asked why two adjacent properties, getting much the same Council services, should pay different rates because their capital values were different.  Other submitters asked why two adjacent properties should pay different rates because they had different land areas and values.

For a fuller canvassing of the arguments see the page “Capital Value versus Land Value Based Rating” on this blog.

Some have claimed that the “Council had already made up its mind.”  This is frequently thrown at councils when they consult despite many examples when councils, including this one, have changed their minds after consultation.

Sometimes Councils, when they have to move into a new venture, approach the community without a stated proposal.  There is an example of this right now with the consultation getting under way over the future of the earthquake-prone Oxford Town Hall.  In the case of the rating base, the Council would not have gone out to the community if a majority of the councillors didn’t think a change was desirable. Many of us have been councillors for quite a long time and we wouldn’t be worth much if we hadn’t been thinking about such a fundamental issue over the years.

That does not mean, however, that we were not prepared to change our minds.  One councillor has stated that he did change his mind in relation to the general rate (although not the much larger roading rate) as a result of the submissions.  Likewise, I came to believe, again as a result of a number of submissions, that we should phase the change in over five years. 

In conclusion, that while the numbers of submissions received are important, consultation is also about the strength of the arguments raised on either side of an issue. Your councillors also know that they are obliged to be prepared to reconsider any proposal that they put out for public consultation.

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