The actions by Taranaki Regional Council in holding three individuals responsible for costs incurred in a hearing, rather than the group for whom they signed on behalf, sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of country. The Council has determinedly pursued this through court action, almost certainly incurring more in legal fees than the debt they claim but they won’t release this information under the OIA unless the applicants pay $461.00 up front – applicants plural because at least eight different people have requested this information. They also refused to release the information to Radio New Zealand unless they paid for it though the sum to be charged was $81 per hour, for an unspecified number of hours.
The group involved is Friends of Waitara River – and the Waitara certainly needs friends. For a long time it was the waste disposal unit for the town’s freezing works which pumped waste down the old blood chute straight into the river (great herring fishing ground, according to older locals). While that has stopped, the river is often the receptacle for overflows from the town’s storm water and even sewage systems. Water quality in the area is so bad that there are signs warning about contaminated shellfish on the local reefs.
The group made a submission on three resource consents related to extending the time permitted for emergency discharge to the water way (emergencies are more frequent than occasional) and requested an independent commissioner to hear the consent applications lodged by New Plymouth District Council to Taranaki Regional Council (TRC). The latter council said they would charge for the independent commissioner but never gave a definite figure.
Friends of Waitara River lacked legal status at the time so their submission was signed by three members. By the time the hearing was held, the group was an incorporated society.
TRC could have decided to carry the cost of the independent commissioner, but they didn’t. They could have decided to bill the group involved, but they didn’t. Instead they deliberately and zealously set out to bill the three individuals who signed the submission. They won in court and on appeal because of the legal technicality of the few weeks between signing and when the group became an incorporated society. They were also awarded costs on the first court hearing but not the appeal.
The court did not take into account multiple failures in procedure by TRC.
- They added a fourth consent which was much larger and more complex to the hearing on the three consents and billed FOWR for costs related to independent commissioners for that fourth consent, even though the group had not requested this.
- They failed to provide details of costs in advance of the hearing.
- FOWR requested AN independent commissioner. TRC had already decided to employ TWO independent commissioners and added a THIRD commissioner – billing FOWR for the additional commissioner.
- TRC admitted in court that the costs incurred as a result of the FOWR request for an independent commissioner were around $5000, but they continue to charge them the original $12000 (plus unspecified additional costs of recovery).
- TRC have refused to negotiate an out of court settlement. They have refused to even meet with FOWR or to permit a delegation to speak to councillors.
- TRC even refused to receive a delegation of local kaumatua who wanted to speak to them about the actions.
- TRC refuses to recognise that FOWR tracks its origins back to 1980 and the hearings into the establishment of the Motunui plant (now methanol but back then a Think Big flagship project turning gas into petrol) with their long sea outfall to sea. Then there was the Waitangi Tribunal hearing into discharging waste to water around Waitara in 1982. The Friends have continued in various forms, advocating for the water and the river and beach environments ever since, as well as being active in environmental projects. The issues have continued for 35 years now and so have some of the group members.
Sadly New Plymouth District Council, whose consents are at the heart of the issue, have wrung their hands in faux sympathy, nodded sagely and walked away.
All this means that three individuals are facing a bill – the exact amount of which remains unknown at this stage but is likely to be closer to $30, 000 than $20, 000.
The real danger of what the Taranaki Regional Council has done is to ensure that nobody will ever make submissions to consents again where costs are threatened. Nor is the public able to use the OIA to try and find out information. Democracy, Taranaki-style, anybody?
The clearest message to them would be country-wide outrage at what they have done and widespread support for the Give A Little page. https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/supportthewaitara3/
Please help and do not let this council bankrupt these three individuals.