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Horowhenua: an environment where the tail wags the dog

Four days after an Official Information Act request was made for the 2016 and 2017 Horowhenua District Council economic development board minutes the council removed information about the economic development board from its website.

Council's communications advisor Trish Hayward said, "Council is in the process of updating the information, layout and photographs on the Horowhenua Economic Development Board page of our website. The page has been temporarily deactivated while the update is carried out. We expect the update to be complete, and the page to be reactivated, early this year."

Former mayor Brendan Duffy led the charge to bring the economic development board's predecessor Enterprise Horowhenua back under council control and Mr Duffy features prominently in Horowhenua's economic development 2014-2017 strategy which is referred to as, "a ten year vision to guide three year outcomes, priorities, actions and initiatives.."

The council document states the strategy was developed "with business as well as the council, regional council, central government and our key partners." The intention of council to take, "an active role...by leading the development of this strategy, and committing to its priority actions" was signed off by Mr Duffy despite the fact residents were not consulted.

A key initiative of the strategy to, "review council’s development contributions policy to support Horowhenua’s economic development agenda" is indicative of the amount of influence the strategy has over the direction and decisions council makes that reverberates today.

Two other key initiatives which resonate today include an intention to, "create opportunities to 'catalyse' economic development through an aligned property assets strategy" which is one of the main reasons the economic development board wants to set up a Trust and, "Identify and develop mechanisms to help create a more business-friendly culture within Council."

Council employs an economic development manager Shanon Grainger, a growth response project manager Daniel Haigh and has recently appointed a "customer and development enabler" Melissa Hanson, a role that council says in a press release has been created specifically to, "provide a more personalised service to valued business customers."

On development contributions council didn't just review contributions land developers used to make toward essential infrastructure (including water and waste water) it canned them in 2015 further enabling the roll out of a plethora of land development projects many of which are outlined in the 2008 Horowhenua Development Plan.

The public was not consulted on the 2008 Horowhenua Development Plan either, instead publicly excluded workshops were held with land developers.

This means two very influential documents created by the few (and, arguably, for the few) are having a disproportionate amount of power and influence over decisions made by council. The fact both documents continue to be so influential today indicates main players inside council remain determined to continue an agenda the public have been excluded from commenting on or being consulted about as is required under the Local Government Act.

Instead the majority of Horowhenua residents are increasingly finding themselves caught in a 'tail wagging the dog' political environment where the economic development board is the tail determining the direction and decisions of council which is the dog and not a very friendly dog at that.

The strategy states an intention to take, "economic development...to the centre of council's actions" but the economic development board does not have a mandate to do so because it isn't bound by the Local Government Act, or its legal requirement to consult or be transparent and accountable in its actions and motivations.

So who are the main players in this tail wagging the dog political environment? The shadows who prefer to maintain secrecy about decisions they are making as a board to such an extent that council clearly agreed to remove information about them from the council website.

The only public face is economic development board chair Cameron Lewis, a director on the board of local asparagus grower Tendertips. He is often quoted in council press releases extolling "growth" happening in the district despite the fact the majority of "growth" indicators are forcasted, estimated and expected not growth in real or actual terms. But the "growth" rhetoric advances the land development agenda of council which is why it is so convenient.

Second cab off the rank is economic development board deputy chair Wayne Bishop who has multi-million dollar land and property development interests across New Zealand and in Horowhenua.

Although he is in public office he is projected to financially benefit by the cancellation of development contributions by at least $2 million based on estimated figures of $15,000 per new build including $750,000 from the projected 500 house sub-division Speldhurst Country Estate in Kimberley Road alone.

Although those standing for public office are not supposed to financially benefit from political decisions - doing so has a name we are not allowed to publicly state for some reason- yet this behaviour is not only tolerated but condoned.

Also on the board is Levana chief executive Andy Wynne, advertising and digital media executive Antony Young who formerly worked as Asia regional director for Saatchi & Saatchi, Horowhenua District councillor and Horowhenua Learning Centre operations manager Barry Judd, engineering company Stevensons Group managing director Evan Kroll, Ellison Group investment company managing director Larry Ellison of Foxton, Horowhenua councillor Piri-Hira Tukapua and managing director of Turk’s Poultry in Foxton Ron Turk.

But a political environment where the tail wags the dog makes Horowhenua look more like it is governed by an oligarchy - where the few have taken control of an organisation - rather than a democracy which is why this increasingly out of control juggernaut needs to be challenged at the highest levels.


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