Dodgy Council’s dodgy consultation for the dodgy dam exposed

The Hawkes Bay Regional Council has got to be one of the dodgiest councils in NZ.

Their commitment to the ratepayers is scant. Look at the way they have conducted their ‘public’ consultation over the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme.

You could be forgiven if you’ve missed it, but June 8 marks the end of HBRC’s public consultation process on the amendments to its Long-Term Plan. These amendments include the proposal for HBRC to buy approximately $40 million of water from its own investment company via the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme.

That is not a trivial sum of money, but initially five of our regional councillors decided that it was not a significant enough to warrant public consultation.

That is, until there was an outcry and the Auditor-General advised that they must put it in as an amendment to the Long-Term Plan (LTP) and consult with the public.

As part of this “public consultation process”, HBRC organised a series of “Have Your Say” meetings. In Wairoa, the meeting was held at 3-5pm on a Wednesday, and in Havelock North from 2-4pm on a Monday.

What percentage of the population can actually attend at those times? There was no meeting held in Hastings.

When I raised the issue of meeting times, I was told by a member of HBRC staff that if they held the meetings in the evening it would “clash with Coronation Street”.

I asked if they would put more meetings on at more appropriate times for the working population and they said no. I attended both the Havelock North and Napier meetings and there were 11 members of the public present at both. That is a fail for public engagement.

A total fail. But the fail gets worse.

Obviously, the effectiveness of any public consultation exercise is greatly dependent on how well it is advertised. Recently, Hastings District Council held a public consultation on the future of the Opera House. If you live or work in the Hastings district, it was practically impossible to miss it.

I contacted HDC to find out what their advertising budgets were: they spent $18,000 on postage-paid feedback fliers that were sent out to ratepayers and handed out to the public, $1000 on billboards, $10,000 on radio advertisements, $12,000 in print media advertisements. That’s a total of $41,000, and they received well over 3000 submissions as a result.

(Incidentally, they held four public information sessions: in Havelock North from 10am-12pm on a Saturday; in Hastings 11am-1pm on a Saturday, and at the Hastings Night Market 5.30-7.30pm; and in Flaxmere 4-6pm on a Thursday.) Contrast that with the publicity budget for HBRCs consultation process: they spent $11,700 on print media advertisements and just $1000 on radio advertisements.

So, HDC spent over three times as much on an issue that was potentially worth about half as much money and affected half as many people as HBRC’s LTP amendments.

Talk about wonky priorities and dodgy projects.

Interestingly, HBRC’s 2015 Regional Survey indicated that ratepayers would prefer HBRC to contact them by post (favoured by 41 per cent of people surveyed), followed by email (26 per cent), HBRC’s website (25 per cent) and HBRC brochures (21 per cent). HBRC spent all of their money on print and radio advertisements. That is a fail for public communication.

Failure all round.

And what happens when the public do have their say? Where the RWSS is concerned, it seems, they are ignored. At every public consultation where comments were invited about the RWSS, the majority have been against it:

– In 2012, of the 81 submissions to the Long-Term Plan consultation, 68 were against the RWSS.

– In October 2012, in the “Tukituki choices” consultation, under the “General comments on Ruataniwha Water Storage Project” heading, 41 were critical of the RWSS and only eight supported it. Of the submissions on the four options presented in the documents, 47 favoured the options without a dam while only 42 favoured those with.

– In 2014 in the “Better to know” consultation, 135 individuals (not groups like Fish and Game or Federated Farmers) supported the RWSS, but around 1000 were against.

– In submissions to the 2015-2025 LTP, 16 were against the RWSS and only six for.

Yet still the RWSS project is pushed through. What does all this say about HBRC’s willingness to engage and listen to the public? It suggests they are merely paying lip service to public consultation; that it is merely a “box-ticking exercise” to be endured.

The Dodgy council is pushing ahead with their dodgy project for a dodgy socialist dam using dodgy public consultation process. The council needs a thorough rinsing come October.

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.