Syed Akbar Kamal: Row over Metrowater
Syed Akbar Kamal
The Metrowater controversy continues to rage unabated. After City Vision last year, it has now engulfed the Citizen’s & Ratepayers dominated council much to the embarrassment of the mayor John Banks and his deputy David Hay acting contrary to their election campaign promises.
The murky waters of Metrowater has come back to haunt C & R who have pledged to take $68 million in charitable payments from the council owned entity over a period of five years.
In the run up to the local body elections October last year the mayor had clearly trumpeted to eliminate charitable payments and rid Metrowater of its ills. In the light of washing its hands off pre-election promises, the right leaning C & R has come under tremendous pressure.
Questions are now being raised in some quarters whether National can be trusted particularly with the contention that central government elections tend to be won or lost in Auckland.
Media spokesperson for the Water Pressure Group Penny Bright contends that the voting public will be interested to see the track record of Auckland City Council elected representatives (read C & R) on this core issue of democratic accountability to get some indication of how trustworthy on key promises central government 'equivalent' (read National Party) political parties will be.
The Parliamentary Select Committee in its September 20th 2007 report strongly advised Auckland City Council to reconsider its requirement for charitable payments from Metrowater in the years 2007 to 2017 and observed “the use of charitable payments in this way, and to this extent, is not best practice, and emphasise our concern that it should not be adopted by other local authorities. It is not acceptable.”
It further stated “We are concerned that raising large amounts of money in this way avoids the public scrutiny to which the collection of revenue by councils should be subject.”
“In future the council should ensure that the public is better informed and that its decision making process is transparent."
Incidentally it was Dr. Nick Smith National MP for Environment, conservation & climate change and his colleague John Carter who had opposed the charitable payments when the Parliament Select Committee inquired into the charging and practices of Metrowater and Watercare Services Ltd and the actions and practices of Auckland City Council’s Finance and Corporate Business Committee.
What riled the Water Pressure Group was the resolution to exclude the public from the review of Metrowater Ltd’s performance for the half year ending 31 December 2007 and that the Chairman and the Chief Executive of Metrowater be in attendance for a later item on the confidential agenda of the council’s Finance and Strategy Committee meeting.
The council’s contention was “the withholding of the information is necessary to protect information where the making available of the information would be likely unreasonably to prejudice the commercial position of the person who supplied or who is the subject of the information.”
“In particular, the report contains commercially sensitive information, which could disadvantage Council and Metrowater while carrying out negotiations of a commercial nature.”
Ms. Bright and Mrs. Haden joined in the chorus to demand “what was the secrecy about when this is a monopoly?”
Ms. Bright who was later arrested by the police questioned the need for secrecy between a council and a council owned organisation?
She quipped “what is it that we are not allowed to know in this open transparent and democratic society, or is that too an illusion.”
City Vision councillors Glenda Fryer and in particular Cathy Casey pushed for eliciting written answers to the Water Pressure Group’s set of questions pertaining to Metrowater. Mr. Armstrong acceded to the request with a promise to make it available in due course of time.
Earlier Global Peace & Justice activist John Minto made a submission along with the Water Pressure Group.
Mr. Minto opposed Metrowater’s “user-pays” charging methods and installed a rainwater collection tank at considerable expense and explored alternative options to the standard contract with the previous CEO Geoff Mabbett but to no avail.
In January 2007 Metrowater took him to District Court for non-payment of water bill where allegedly the Court was annoyed with Metrowater for not taking the case to the Disputes Tribunal.
The outcome was a ruling against Mr. Minto resulting in his $2,700 water bill ballooning with court costs sought by Metrowater to a total of more than $11,000.
He is happy to comply with the court decision relating to the water bill but disputing Metrowater’s claim to front up their legal and court costs.
submission, he charged Metrowater of breeching its own
disputes policy and amending it since then and pointed out
the five-step disputes procedure that was outlined on its
website when they took him to court.
1. Tell us
2. Management Review
5. Disputes Tribunal or Court
The Water Pressure Group is opposed to both 'user-charges' 'variable'-volumetric charges based on water usage and 'fixed' or flat charges for water services - where everyone pays the same.
They support the 'Christchurch model' where water services are paid for as a proportion of the general property rate.
The group feels user-charges disproportionately burden poorer particularly larger families who need to use more water and as such violate the basic human right to 'affordable safe water'.
The scene at the meeting was charged with emotions. Accusations and counter accusations hurled and heated exchanges between the chair Finance Committee Douglas Armstrong and Grace Haden who was demanding speaking rights at the meeting.
The situation went out of control in the forum open to the public when Metrowater Chairman Ross Keenan and Chief Executive Officer Jim Bentley concluded their answers to the questions posed by the chair and the councillors.
Mrs. Haden contended that she was assured by the mayor last year of an invitation to a meeting and demanded to speak. Repeated requests from Mr. Armstrong to calm her down culminated in adjournment of the meeting and police being called.
Before walking out she abused Mr. Armstrong with an expletive in response to his comment “you have no manners”.
“She had not put in a request for speaking rights, if she had, I would have no problems in allowing her to speak,” said an exasperated Mr. Armstrong.
How water services are operated and managed in the Auckland region:
Privatised Model: Council owns water services infrastructure, but operation and management of water services contracted out to the private sector for private profit.
Papakura District Council &
Franklin District Council
Contractor is water multinational United Water.
Papakura has user-charges for
both water and wastewater.
Franklin has user-charges for water only, and a fixed (flat) charge for wastewater.
Both contracts cover only water and wastewater (sewerage) services - stormwater (rainwater) services are covered by general rates.
Commercialised Model: Council owns water
services infrastructure, but operation and management of
water services is no longer under direct Council
Operated and managed as a 'Council Controlled Organisation' under the Local Government Act 2002, with own Board of Directors.
Auckland City Council-
Manukau City Council- Manukau Water
Metrowater has user-charges for both water and
Manukau Water has user-charges for water only, and a fixed (flat) charge for wastewater.
Both only cover water and wastewater (sewerage) services - stormwater (rainwater) services are covered by Council under general rates.
Public Service Model: Council directly owns, operates and manages water, wastewater and stormwater services.
North Shore City Council
Waitakere City Council
Rodney District Council
The above three councils have user-charges for water and fixed charge for wastewater.
Akbar Kamal is producer/director for current affairs
programme Darpan-The Mirror.