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Listening to the People

I'm trying to pace myself through the new season of House of Cards on Netflix, trying to watch only one episode per week. This requires major self-discipline, especially when my wife urges binge viewing.

Tom Belford31 July 2017

I’m trying to pace myself through the new season of House of Cards on Netflix, trying to watch only one episode per week. This requires major self-discipline, especially when my wife urges binge viewing.

Switching back and forth between President Underwood (aka Kevin Spacey) and President Trump helps fill the incredibility gap, although it’s hard to distinguish which is more fantastical – the onscreen president we know is corrupt, or the real-life one who is ‘only’ under investigation, and who so far is proven guilty only of bad taste, worse ethics, and narcissism of pathological proportion.

How tame politics and issues are by comparison here in “she’ll be right” New Zealand!

And even closer at hand, here in Hawke’s Bay, where emotions run highest around pay parking, freedom campers, mayoral junkets to California, war memorials, and councillor emails.

Of course citizens are perfectly entitled to sound-off on whatever issues aggrieve them; that’s the stuff of democratic politics. And it’s the duty of elected officials to listen and respond.

If there’s a theme to this article, it’s whether and how citizen voices get heard.

Submissions

Both the Local Government Act and the Resource Management Act specify the occasions on which public consultation must occur, and on those occasions, submissions are the most conventional form of public input. Sometimes this formal process is extremely eye-opening and makes a difference; sometimes it amounts to box-ticking on the part of councils.

At the regional council, submitters at our recent hearing on our pending Annual Plan brought all sorts of concerns to the table.

Some were on ‘big’ issues, like biodiversity and the proposed million-dollar ‘hot spot’ rate increase. Others were quite localized in focus, yet reflected issues that could be warnings of serious private wrongdoing and/ or systemic council inattention.

For example, one submitter brought video showing major dumping of what appeared to be industrial waste alongside the lower Tukituki in areas supposedly under council ‘lock and key’. He claimed to have complained to council staff about the situation, only to be brushed off. Having brought the matter directly – and visually – to councillors, the dumping is now being investigated.

Another submitter complained of logging slash being pushed across her rural road and into a streambank. Councillors were suitably alarmed and asked if photos were available. They arrived the same evening, proving the saying … a picture is worth a thousand words.

Lesson to submitters: bring visuals!

The reality is that most people in a small community like Hawke’s Bay – where relationships are intricately intertwined – do not wish to be seen publicly rocking the boat, advocating a position, making an official complaint, or reporting miscreants.

Encounters like these are hugely valuable to elected representatives – they test (and sometimes expose) the ineffectiveness of rules, the complacency of staff, the extent of bad behaviour by our fellow citizens, and the consequent need to re-think priorities, policies, attention and resourcing.

Digital democracy

These formal exchanges, however, are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to concerned citizens seeking accountable government.

In my experience, the most valuable exchange between elected representatives and citizens is far more often informal, private and confidential … and these days more likely to occur in emails and text messages. This is the much vaster ‘stuff’ of politics and representative government.

The reality is that most people in a small community like Hawke’s Bay – where relationships are intricately intertwined – do not wish to be seen publicly rocking the boat, advocating a position, making an official complaint, or reporting miscreants.

But elected officials need to hear from them nonetheless, with the understanding that such communications can occur in privacy and be kept confidential. That’s the root principle that has caused several councillors, myself included, to decline releasing such communications to requestors seeking them under the Official Information Act.

HAWKE’S BAY TODAY LGOIMA REQUEST: “Email communications to, from, and/or between at least 3 of – Rex Graham, Tom Belford, Rick Barker, Peter Beaven, Neil Kirton & Paul Bailey in their capacity as councillors – between 1Nov16 & 30Apr17 – referencing Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme (RWSS), HBRIC Ltd, Andy Pearce, Andrew Newman, Napier Port, and/or “Romans”.

Consider that the HB Today fishing expedition cited above would entail thousands of emails. There’s a balance to be struck between unconstrained transparency, personal privacy and ‘full and frank’ discussion between elected officials, members of the public, and each other. The Act expressly recognizes the need for that balance. There’s nothing sinister about it.

As I see it, public accountability is wellserved when ratepayers and voters can communicate their concerns and grievances to elected officials in confidence, and when councillors can discuss such matters, also in confidence.

SHEEP GRAZE BANKS OF KARAMŪ STREAM

So far, judging from the support we’ve received for taking this position, most of the public seems to agree. I’d welcome hearing from anyone who does not.

 

 

Stakeholders – biodiversity

Including the public and interest groups in a more substantial way in decision-making around complex, major choices – water storage, environmental standards, broad strategies for issues like biodiversity and wise energy futures – is a vexing challenge for councils.

LOGGING SLASH IN WAIROA STREAM

On any given issue, who are the key players, what information do they need, how can competing values be heard and served, what is an orderly path to sort through the issues, and what’s a trustworthy way to develop consensus (or whatever consensus there is to be had)?

The stakeholder process aimed at selling the proposed Ruataniwha dam was one such example. One whose chief value was to identify lessons in what not to do. Lesson #1: don’t bother to set up a faux consultative process when the desired outcome has already been decided.

Learning that lesson, the regional council has embarked on a number of other stakeholder processes that show far more promise for unifying diverse interests to meet significant challenges.

For example, a regional biodiversity strategy, looking ahead to 2050, has been successfully fashioned by a diverse set of interests (about 50 in all) including foresters, farmers, Maori, environmentalists, councils, DoC and others. With the strategy released in March 2016, the process has taken about four years – four years of volunteer meetings around the region to identify concerns and opportunities, ‘lubricated’ by modest staff support from HBRC, but very much owned by the stakeholders involved.

An Action Plan and structure has been agreed upon to address biodiversity needs over time. The planning group, now chaired by Charles Daugherty (awarded ONZM for services to conservation and biology), aims to have a Hawke’s Bay Biodiversity Foundation in place in early 2018; its aim is to bring together an array of public and private funding partners. In formulating a new Long Term Plan next year, decisions will be made regarding HBRC financial support for the strategy.

So far, this planning process has earned high marks from its diverse stakeholders, and can be looked upon as a very positive model. That said, its next test is to attract the level of multiple-source funding needed to move forward seriously with its Action Plan and begin on-the-ground projects.

Stakeholders – coastal hazards

The impact of climate change – particularly sea level rise – on our coastal communities and environment is the focus of another major stakeholder process led by the regional council, alongside the Hastings and Napier councils and tangata whenua.

The aim of this process, begun in 2015 and chaired by regional councillor Peter Beaven, has been to: first, educate councils, coastal communities and the broader public about the expected impacts of an inescapable physical change – of uncertain pace and severity – that will take decades to unfold; and second, devise a consensus response that contemplates measures ranging from engineered protections to relocating key infrastructure to potential managed retreat of communities.

Laboring away at this challenge has been a small army of science, engineering, social science and cultural experts, informing two large citizen-stakeholder panels of about 35 members each, one focused on the coast from the Port north to Tangoio, the other from Marine Parade south to Clifton.

As a councillor-observer to the ‘southern’ group, I am astonished by the scores and scores of hours of study and discussion that unpaid representatives of our communities have dedicated to this process, including Friday night sessions and all-day workshops.

At this stage, the panels have narrowed down and are weighing options for coping with sea rise in various ‘cells’ along the coast in the near, mid, and long term, assessing these against environmental, social/cultural and economic criteria. Yet to come is costing the final options and devising a funding strategy that is fair to all ratepayers in the region.

As readers surely appreciate, this is a hugely complex planning project, even for the technical experts, planning consultants and council staffs. Adding citizen participants to the mix – not just as observers to be ‘kept informed’, but as arbiters of the mitigation options that will be undertaken – could make for an impossibly erratic and contentious process. To date it has not.

A unified, community-endorsed Clifton to Tangoio Coastal Hazards Strategy is a realistic possibility.

Stakeholders – TANK

A third stakeholder process led by the regional council aims to devise a comprehensive water management regime for the Heretaunga Plains – consisting of the Tutaekuri, Ahuriri, Ngaruroro and Karamu (TANK) catchments.

BayBuzz reported on TANK in depth in our March/April edition, so I won’t re-cover that ground.

Here I will just comment on the process from a citizen engagement perspective. Given the ecological, cultural and economic stakes involved, it would not be surprising to see the diverse parties – some of whom weathered the Tukituki process – sitting around the table in wary postures.

But the lesson from the failed Tukituki process being applied here is to test the science and the assumptions behind the science in full view, with all participants hopefully able to buy into the implications. No pre-determined outcome is being sold. I am a councillor-observer to this stakeholder process. Here are some takeaways from the science so far:

• environmental mitigations will need to be diverse and uniquely suited to problems that differ in various waterways;

• reducing sediment will be critical;

• ecologically harmful low flows might not be restored by targeted irrigation bans;

• municipal and industrial users have water conservation responsibilities no less than irrigators;

• seawater intrusion into the aquifer does not appear to be an issue;

• augmenting water supply, if needed for ecological reasons while supporting commercial use, might be feasible in a number of ways.

Among the issues still to be traversed are the overall sustainable ‘take’ that is feasible from the aquifer, given projectable water demand and recharge capability; better understanding of some environmental ‘hotspots’; addressing the extent and mitigation of urban stormwater run-off ; and fleshing out augmentation options.

But the key point is that all parties are walking through these issues together, with equal access to the underlying information, and full opportunity to challenge anything.

MĀKĀRORO RIVER WOULD BE DAMMED. Photo: Tim Whittaker. tim.co.nz

The dam

The stakeholder examples described above seem to have integrity and be on the right track. The stakeholder process for the proposed Ruataniwha dam was entirely cosmetic and yielded no consensus whatsoever. Which didn’t matter to dam proponents.

But the result is the impasse the dam proposition has reached, culminating in the recent ‘cup of tea’ review of the project.

One might call the 31 May HBRC meeting a watershed event for the dam. At that meeting, councillors acted on the findings of the review.

In short, the project was effectively put on hold, in recognition that all of the socalled ‘conditions precedent’ needed to be re-addressed, and that a significant new environmental condition was required to ensure – if indeed it’s possible to ensure – that the Tukituki catchment would not in fact be further damaged by proceeding with the dam.

In addition, HBRC decided to join with the Environmental Defence Society and Fish and Game in applying for a declaratory judgment from the Environment Court aimed at clarifying definitively some of the key Plan Change 6 environmental requirements. How these requirements are interpreted could have major bearing on environmental mitigation strategy and the viability of the scheme.

Finally, another new condition requires that the land swap needed for the dam reservoir is not blocked by the Supreme Court, which is considering an appeal on the matter by Forest & Bird.

So, looking afresh at the ‘conditions precedent’:

1. Does the HBRIC hold ‘workable’ consents for the RWSS? Possibly not, depending on the Environment Court outcome.

2. Does HBRIC hold a final signed construction contract for the scheme? No, given delays in project, the contract will still need to be re-confirmed.

3. Has adequate volume of water been contracted by farmers? No, the requirement has now been adjusted upward to 50 million cubes (from 40 million), a level that still does not meet most ratepayers’ definition of ‘breakeven’. For example, HBRIC would still need to borrow up to $80 million additional over 22 years so as to be able to pay the stipulated dividend from the project to HBRC. What some have called a “Ponzi scheme”.

4. Does the scheme have a confirmed institutional investor? Not yet. Councillors have asked HBRIC to re-negotiate terms that are regarded as far too favourable to the investor.

Those conditions have to be met in the face of a new environmental condition.

The newly-added environmental condition requires that an environmental mitigation scheme must be brought forward – applying to all farmers in the Tukituki catchment – that provides convincing evidence that the health of the Tuki will in fact be improved. This evidence must be demonstrated in Farm Environmental Management Plans submitted by a ‘reasonable’ number of farmers in the catchment, including those potentially in the scheme.

Finally, another new condition requires that the land swap needed for the dam reservoir is not blocked by the Supreme Court, which is considering an appeal on the matter by Forest & Bird. If the land swap is nullified, all of the above conditions are moot … the project would be dead.

Effectively, the case for proceeding with the dam is yet to be made. And no council decision will be made on the project for several months, while the work on conditions described above proceeds.

Stay tuned!

Tom Belford31 July 2017

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