Nelson Residents Association


Role of Local Government

 Click here for: The Local Government Act 2002 AMENDMENT BILL 2012


Role of Local Government

The range of mandatory tasks undertaken by local authorities in New Zealand is relatively small, with activities such as policing, health, education and social welfare largely the domain of central government.  As a result, local government expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic production (GDP) is small, see table below.

Local government spending

Local government share of total government spending  


Local government share of GDP  


Local government employees


Regional councils and territorial authorities have been designed to be largely complementary rather than hierarchical, however, in relation to environmental management, territorial councils must give effect to regional councils' regional policy statements.

Regional council activities - regional councils are primarily concerned with environmental resource management, flood control, air and water quality, pest control, and in specific cases public transport, regional parks and bulk water supply.

Territorial authority activities - territorial authorities are responsible for a wide range of local services including roads, water reticulation, sewerage and refuse collection, libraries, parks, recreation services, local regulations, community and economic development, and town planning.

The Local Government Act 2002 (LGA 2002) empowers councils to promote the well being of communities. The purpose of local government is defined in section 10 of the LGA 2002, it is:

  1. enable democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities; and
  2. promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural 'wellbeing' of communities, in the present and for the future.

Councils, however, have extensive discretion in relation to activities they undertake, as long as they have consulted their communities in making the decision.  As a result there is considerable diversity in the range of activities that councils provide, reflecting the different circumstances cities, towns and communities find themselves in.

The role of elected members

New Zealand local government comprises of 78 local authorities consisting of 1614 elected members.  The key elected member roles are mayor, regional council chair, councillor, local board member and community board member. 

On taking office each elected member, on the first meeting following election, must swear the following oath:

"I, [full name of councillor], declare that I will faithfully and impartially, and according to the best of my skill and judgment, execute and perform, in the best interests of [name of region or district], the powers, authorities, and duties vested in or imposed upon me as a member of the [name of local authority] by virtue of the Local Government Act 2002, the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, or any other Act."

That oath requires elected members to use their best skill and judgement in order to perform in the best interests of the whole community, not just the ward from which they were elected.  

Elected members have two core roles, governance and representation, although the proportions will differ depending on whether elected members are councillors (more emphasis on governance) or community board members (more emphasis on representation). 

The governance role requires elected members to make decisions for the overall benefit of the community, not only for the current generation but for generations to come.  Elected members essentially wear two hats and it is not unusual for an elected member to strongly state an opinion in order to reflect the views of his or her constituents and then vote in a different manner, on the grounds that good governance must take into account the needs of all the citizens within the city or district.

The governance role is akin to the role of a director on a board.  Both councillors and directors are:

  • accountable to third parties for exercising good stewardship over substantial assets
  • responsible for leading complex organisations, the operation of which requires considerable management and technical skills
  • operating in an area where the formal legal and administrative responsibility for handling day-to-day affairs is vested in a chief executive and the elected member has a largely ‘hands-off' or ‘arm's-length' monitoring relationship.

The representation role requires elected members to articulate the needs and preferences of their constituents on issues important to whatever ward or constituency they represent (for example, street repair, tree removal).  The need to properly represent constituents is balanced by the requirements of the oath of office and the need to govern on behalf of all the citizens in a jurisdiction.

Representing citizens goes beyond simply being an advocate; it involves building relationships with individuals and groups to inform, consult and empower people in order to facilitate effective community involvement.

The mayor's role

The mayor's role consists of three major elements - political, policy and community leadership.

Political leadership refers to the mayor's role as ‘presiding' member of the council (meeting chair) and in establishing and managing the political structure of the council; appointing the deputy mayor and committee chairs; overseeing the chief executive, managing the political administration interface and acting as the primary spokesperson for the organisation.

Policy leadership involves initiating and developing policy and translating community wishes into specific proposals that the councils can debate.  It is a two-way process in which mayors get to ‘know' the community, and ensure community concerns and aspirations are reflected in the council's on-going programme of policy development.  Key processes are strategic plans and long term and annual plans.

Community leadership generally describes a mayor's representation function, particularly his or her ceremonial duties and community engagement.  Ultimately, it involves leadership on behalf of, and for, the community.  Surveys of mayors suggest that this was the most important of the three leadership functions.

An important aspect of community leadership is the role of community advocate, whether that involves demanding that the government adopt or amend a policy as it affects the district, or arguing that an important service stay within the district.  The leadership role can be seen to stand outside councils' day-to-day operation as it draws its mandate from mayors' at-large election and an historic tradition of mayors representing the community.

Mayors often find that the range of issues they are asked to respond to extends well beyond the council's range of responsibilities.  The community has high expectations of a mayor, often not realising the lack of any executive powers.

However, using their ‘bully pulpit' powers, mayors can achieve quite a lot.

Traditionally it is the mayor who speaks publicly for the council in order to keep the community informed.  In this sense the mayor is the ‘first citizen'.  Because the mayor ‘signs off' the annual and long term plan, there is a sense in which he/she is held responsible for it.  The mayor is also expected to promote or sell their council's plan to the community.  

The Auckland Council mayor has a range of additional powers, such as the ability to choose his or her deputy and the chairs of the council's committees.

Participating in local government

One of the strengths of local government is the opportunity it affords for citizens to be directly engaged in the process of governing their own towns, cities and regions.  The practice of self government enhances our understanding of citizenship while ensuring public services are responsive to the needs of the communities they are designed to serve. 

Legislation sets the broad framework governing the rights of citizens to be involved in the decision-making process on top of which councils have wide discretion to enhance such opportunities.  Opportunities include:

  • standing for office - any New Zealand citizen 18 years or older has the right to stand for election to an office in local government.  Elections are held on the second Saturday in October every third year.  Information on standing for office can be found here
  • making a submission - councils are required to take into account the views of their citizens when making decisions, the degree to which this applies will depend on the significance of the decisions.  Citizens have the right to make submissions and speak directly to the council during the annual planning and the long term planning process.  In addition councils undertake consultation exercises on many other policies and plans.
  • attend a meeting - council meetings, unless specifically designated otherwise, are open to public and many councils provide a forum at the start of their meetings for the public to speak directly to the councillors. Similar opportunities exist to attend meetings of local boards, community boards and councils committees, which are also less formal.
  • online consultation - increasingly councils are making use of their websites to seek the views of their communities.  Check your council's website to see what items are subject to consultation.
  • talk to your councillor - councillors, as well as local and community board members, are elected to represent your interests.  Know who your elected members are and find out what approaches they take to find out the issues that are bothering their constituents.  Some councillors will hold neighbourhood clinics, some are likely to meet in local cafes while others will prefer social media to keep in touch with their electors.
  • local polls - on certain matters citizens can require their councils to conduct binding polls and referenda.  Polls on the type of electoral system or whether or not to have Māori seats can be triggered by petitions signed by at least 5 per cent of registered voters.

Councils will regularly publicise information about consultation opportunities. This information will be on council websites and in the public notice columns of newspapers.  In addition many councils publish their own newsletters with information about council activities. 

Last updated: July 2012




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