QLDC chief executive declares Wānaka breakaway petition has no merit

by Kim Bowden - Aug 04, 2023

The chief executive of the Queenstown Lakes District Council has penned a response to a petition calling for Wānaka and the Upper Clutha to split off and govern alone, questioning the merit of looking into the proposal.

In a letter to the Local Government Commission council boss Mike Theelen says he has found "no fundamental failing in governance, service levels or council investment" to warrant a rethink of local government structures in the district.

But at least two elected members, including the deputy mayor, Wānaka-based councillor Quentin Smith, are concerned with the overall tone of the letter.

Councillor Niki Gladding says the letter was presented to councillors in a recent closed-door workshop, and she was one of those who requested some of the language be revised to ensure it remained neutral.

It is her view that advice was not taken onboard.

Meanwhile the deputy mayor is calling some of the wording of the letter "unfortunate" as it gives the impression of the council "not being impartial".

"There was some feedback from a couple of councillors, including myself, that the wording was unhelpful but, unfortunately, the timing was such that it didn't intercept the response to the commission."

It is Mr Smith's view it is not the council's job to influence the commission but rather to provide the facts to support it to make its decision.

Quentin Smith wanted the council to adopt a neutral tone in its response to the Local Government Commission on the Wānaka breakaway petition - they didn't.

"I think the council needed to be, both for the trust of the community and for the sake of the commission, completely impartial and neutral.

"From my perspective, I'm not uncomfortable with the commission undertaking an investigation and finding what they find. It doesn't worry me."

Mr Rankin, the Wānaka resident who instigated the breakaway petition, tells Crux he received a copy of the letter via an official information request and felt "surprised" when he read it.

"We've got the chief executive, and a couple of other ones, who have sort of taken it upon themselves to make the decision and go, 'Oh, no, everything's all fine here. We don't need an investigation. That's all under control.'"

Mr Rankin says it has left him wondering "who is running the show", the chief executive and his management team or the elected councillors?

The letter was sent by the chief executive at the request of the Local Government Commission, who is charged with considering whether to launch an investigation after receiving a petition from more than 10 percent of voters in the Wānaka-Uppper Clutha Ward supporting the proposal to break away.

The council's position: the evidence does not indicate an investigation is warranted or justified, Mr Theelen says.

"In receiving the details of the petition, and undertaking consultation with staff and elected members, it is acknowledged that there is clearly some level of perception of inequity amongst the Wānaka-Upper Clutha community.

"This was raised at the 2022 Annual Plan - and has been an on and off comment since amalgamation - and council did correct those misconceptions at the time and has repeatedly confirmed that both the capex spend and use of scheme-based, targeted rates ensures that funding and expenditure remain generally proportionate across all the wards in the district.

"Elected members and staff felt that this was an area of ongoing focus in the future to address any misconceptions about investment, representation, and levels of service in the ward. This is work the council will be actively pursuing regardless of the commission’s final decision."

Mr Theelen includes six pages of attachments, including 22 bullet points, of evidence to back up the council's position and undermine that of Mr Rankin.

He says the ward has its own council offices and plenty of local staff, hosts regular council meetings, has more elected representation than any other in the district - four councillors (up one after a 2021 review) and four community board members, and has traditionally been represented by the deputy mayor - now Quentin Smith and formerly Calum MacLeod.

There is some tension in the ward regarding the mayoralty, and this was referenced in Mr Rankin's petition documents - current Mayor Glyn Lewers didn't win based on Wānaka-Upper Clutha Ward votes, and the previous mayor wasn't top choice locally either - but Mr Theelen says this is simply the way the system works, not a reflection of any sort of impartiality by the council itself.

While the petition also references a lack of infrastructure investment relative to over the hills in the Whakatipu Basin, Mr Theelen says the figures do not back this "perception" up.

The Wānaka-Upper Clutha population is approximately one third of the total district, and the capital investment over the current ten year plan period includes a direct investment of 30 percent for the ward, with it also receiving a share of district wide capital investment, while three waters investment is all scheme based, so costs are funded by the communities that directly benefit from them, he says.

"Council acknowledges that the communities in the Wānaka-Upper Clutha Ward are growing fast and that this places pressure on roading, three waters and social infrastructure – all of which take significant time and investment to grow to meet the needs of the increased population.

"However, this is a situation that is consistent throughout the whole district and the same pressures are being seen in both the Queenstown-Whakatipu and Arrowtown-Kawarau wards."

It is his view the historical separation between Queenstown and Wānaka and "sides of the hill" are becoming increasingly less relevant as people move back and forth, often as often as daily, between the two centres.

If anything, the petition and any subsequent investigation may "increase division in the community, enhancing further a perception of 'them and us' between Wānaka-Upper Clutha and the rest of the district," Mr Theelen says.

Mr Rankin admits some of the details he provided in support of his petition may not be 100 percent right as he did it off his on back, without hundreds of council staff and data resources at the ready.

"But it's basically highlighting areas that I feel strongly about and I know a lot of other locals feel strongly about."

Whether the issues Mr Rankin raises are a matter of perception or reality will be for the Local Government Commission to decide. Either way, the council has now publicly committed to doing better to communicate its work to residents and ratepayers of the Wānaka-Upper Clutha Ward.

Main image: Left, Queenstown Lakes District Council chief executive Mike Theelen; right, Wānaka petition instigator Dean Rankin.

Read more: Wānaka breakaway petition numbers stack up

Watch more: Dean Rankin - the car mechanic from Wānaka who wants to engineer a split from neighbouring Queenstown.

Southern Lens - Dean Rankin from Crux on Vimeo.

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