by Ian Apperley
Apologies for a slight diversion back into local politics. My interest was caught this week when I noticed that the South Wairarapa District Council (SWDC) had seemingly lost their mind and were having a significant crack at their water provider, of which they own part. But this has been going on for weeks, after the SWDC put rates up to an eye-watering level, some people seeing an increase of more than 35%.
Councils are essential to rural communities just as in the cities, and after a couple of years of watching the councils out here in the Wairarapa, I wondered “is this council just as lost as Wellington City?” Spoiler alert – yes.
That of course got me reading, researching, and trying to understand how such a grand stuffup could have occurred, while watching the council and Mayor wriggle around like an eel attempting to escape capture, with all the usual nonsense throwaway comments that show an administration chasing its tail.
I’ll leave you to opt-out at this point if you are not interested. Politics is an addiction, especially writing about it, and Hunter S Thompson’s influence on my writing fuels the fire. But this is rural politics meeting city politics in a small valley that deserves better than many low-rent politicians trying to manage something they apparently do not understand, which impacts on their rural community.
So come on a little journey with me, to see how a tiny council, in the middle of nowhere, is imploding in a burning ball of flame.
“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” – Ernest Benn
In an extraordinary public attack this week, the SWDC unleashed its fury on Wellington Water, the company they own part of, which is tasked with managing water on their behalf. The SWDC (and other Councils) pay Wellington Water to manage, well, all their water services. And rural water management is complex. Screw it up, and your farm gets washed away in flood, your stock have nothing to drink, you have nothing to drink, and everything dies.
Overblown budgets, multiple project variations, and cost inefficiencies. Elected members from South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] did not hold back in their criticism of Wellington Water [WW] … at a public meeting this week. SWDC chief executive Harry Wilson went as far as saying the council needed to “hold [WW’s] feet to the fire” to stick to budgets. The talks arose when councillors evaluated cost-saving options in their budget to lessen the impact of future rates increases. Councillor Leigh Hay, who chairs the council’s Finance Audit and Risk Committee, said she had “quite a few concerns” about WW. –
I hear what you are thinking. “This is outrageous” you splutter into your Double Brown, covering your beard with New Zealand’s most tasty original craft beer, “these Wellington Water people are fools of the highest order! Indeed we should burn their feet!”
Maybe. Or maybe the Council is trying to pull a deflection away from a couple of burning issues and this is the best they can come up with.
There are three warning signs here that the Council is not performing at its job, has disappeared down a serious rabbit hole, and watching their brain explode is, frankly, entertaining, especially when they are not my Council¹.
Anyone who has ever managed an outsourcing contract knows a few things. First, if the outsourcer is failing – in this case, Wellington Water (allegedly) – it’s the fault of the person buying the service, not the outsourcer. That’s because it’s your job to make them perform; that’s what the ratepayers are throwing increasingly stupid amounts of money at you to do.
Second, mentioning the contract, especially publicly, means that the underlying relationship is screwed. Screwed, burned, dead, and probably heading into zombie mode. One councillor mused in that meeting that perhaps they should “cancel the contract.”
Well, that’s how you drive the last nail in by saying things like that. I am guessing that Greytown and Martinborough would like water to keep coming out of their taps. I’m not seeing another water provider around the area, so for residents it might be time to buy a tank and a septic system. Given that the SWDC only has sixty staff, taking it back in house seems like not only a no go but probably violently expensive, as Wellington Water offers economies of scale.
Worse, having railed against the proposed Three Waters in the past, it was suggested they throw it over the fence to the new authority. An authority that was described by a Masterton Councillor as “a deceitful, lying pack of bastards.”
Third, Council meetings are about Governance. Not operations. Stay with me! Stay with me!
Governance is about steering the ship in the correct direction and trusting that the crew can manage how that happens. The ship will hit an iceberg and sink if the captain is down in the engine room telling people what to do, which tool, and how to do their job.
So to summarise, the Council, which owns part of Wellington Water, has waved a figurative shotgun around, pulled the trigger, and managed to shoot itself in both feet. Then, it has lain on the ground, bleeding out, refusing to accept any responsibility for its actions. Worse, the activities are at variance with themselves.
Martinborough is the jewel in SWDC’s crown, closely followed by Greytown. Featherston feels like a gateway town, having retained its character over the years. Martinborough has been subject to increasing gentrification, exploiting wine tourism for the most part, and being a portal to some of the most beautiful spots on earth.
Imagine if you will a couple on a pension, living within walking distance from Martinborough square, in a freehold house they have been in for most of their life. Increasing prices are stretching the meagre budget week on week, and while the home is worth over a million dollars, you can’t eat that money.
They sit down and reflect on the day, the highs and lows, over a meal. Then they open their rates bill.
It’s increased by thirty-five percent. It was already expensive, costing $70 a week, now it’s jumped to $110. While it doesn’t sound like a lot, on a pension it’s significant.
Across the Martinborough square from the well-appointed pub attended by visitors to the town is the Pukemanu Bar. TAB dominates one wall; local workers, farmers, and contractors are in attendance. Lunch, a pie, a toasted sandwich, and a pint will set you back around $12². As rates increase, so does rent, and for those living on minimum wage and not much more, this pushes them out further and further from the town.
Understandably there is outrage that the SWDC could raise rates this high. While they were indicating an increase, it was nothing like what some residents are seeing. The SWDC is under severe pressure to explain this and fix it, and the best they can come up with is this;
“Sorry.” *insert pained smiley face emoji*
Sorry doesn’t count for much when you need to eat, so meetings are organised where the SWDC gets up and says “sorry” some more, hoping it will all go away. Then, when it doesn’t go away, they get grumpy.
Theodore Taptiklis, who has been a South Wairarapa ratepayer for 25 years, said a 29 percent rates increase “in a world of five percent inflation is wild fantasy … it’s totally unreasonable”. He said he got a sense of “arrogance and entitlement” from the council’s response to the miscommunication and felt the council’s proposed remedy was “not good enough”. The council’s … preferred option for engagement is to make reductions in costs that do not significantly reduce levels of service, and carry over savings to the next financial year. “I want my money back now,” Taptiklis said. He said the council was charged by ratepayers to do “a number of straightforward tasks” and said that costs should be easily predictable “on the basis of many years of prior experience”.
“Infrastructure costs are easy to deal with if we put aside a little each year.” Mayor Alex Beijen said: “Thank you for a very simplistic view of what the council does,” to which the audience reacted with shouts.
I guess old mate Beijen isn’t that sorry at all. Kind of like saying to your kid, “Now you say sorry to Jimmy for really screwing up his life by putting the rates up, please.” And then your kid saying “Soooooorry” in a whiny, dripping with sarcasm voice, followed by a sulky retort, “Jimmy is just simple though.”
Well hell. That was repeated at many meetings where the SWDC proposed to find resolution and action by the 17th of November. Guess what? That didn’t happen; instead, we see an orchestrated deflection of the rates increase issue via an ill-considered attack on Wellington Water, which they own and are responsible for. And still no plan.
Kind of like the equivalent of wandering around punching yourself in the face out of impotent rage, hoping that someone will feel sorry for you.
Are you ok, SWDC?
Was Taptiklis correct? He said the Council was charged by ratepayers to do “a number of straightforward tasks” and said that costs should be easily predictable “on the basis of many years of prior experience”?
He’s right. And it is simple. South Wairarapa has a population of approximately 11,000 people who are generally rurally focussed. The SWDC has 60 people employed to manage that, but remember, they outsource services for which they are responsible.
To manage the Council, they have nine councillors and the mayor. Nine! If you applied that ratio to thee Wellington City Council, they would have one hundred and eighty-three councillors.
I was amazed. That ratio seems very high, and given that Councillors are all experts in their respective fields, dedicate themselves to the full-time role that they are employed by us in, and the wise old heads of the community, then SWDC should be the most successful, efficient Council, on earth.
I was being sarcastic. “Sooooooorry.”
So here we are, months after the rates bomb was dropped on a largely vulnerable community, with no plan in sight to fix this epic stuff up. Instead, deflection and public brain explosions pour fuel on the fire, starting another fire and lacking water to put any of it out.
I suspect that the SWDC is probably one of the Councils most distant from its constituency. Given that only just over half of the residents voted in the last local election, that seems to be fact. If they had any inkling of what their community does, the rural connection, and the impact of their decision on residents, they’d quit on mass out of the very shame of it.
This is a shambles that will not go away. It’s a burning tyre yard. A mine fire you can’t extinguish. A flood that you cannot plug with your finger.
It will be fascinating to see how this plays out, because the SWDC has set the entire community on the warpath. They won’t forget. And with local elections next year, the politicians are going to be scrambling like rabbits in farmer spotlights to extricate themselves from this briar patch, slick their hair back again, and then no doubt promise to fix it all if they get re-elected.
It’s such a debacle that potentially they should look at bringing in independent assessors to try and untangle it; the community should also push the Minister for Local Government to bring in commissioners because the trust with the public is broken.
Of course, appealing to the Minister for Local Government (and Three Waters) is an exercise in futility. Running around the Martinborough square punching yourself in the face would yield more profitable results.
The Minister, in my opinion, has been the worst Local Government representative in living memory, with many Councils around the country collapsing, and her response is to ignore the incompetence and feedback. Her answer is to treat them like naughty children, taking all their toys off them and giving them to Three Waters, which is rapidly being staffed by the same people who are in charge of water now.
Do you see? Local Politics is interesting. Interesting, like watching Lord of the Flies, Wag the Dog, maybe One Flew over the Cuckoo Nest, or perhaps any other disaster movie.
I promise you, I didn’t come here to cover a bunch of ex-accountants stuffing up a beautiful thing after all. But, all the same, it is an exciting slice of rural life.
1. My Council is Carterton, whom I have a lot of respect for, which is a different article.
2. People I think are scared of the Pukemanu and need not be. It’s full of excellent characters, very welcoming, and most relaxed.
First published on Ian Apperley’s new blog The End of the World: From Urban to Bucolic.