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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Free speech banned in the South Waikato

2 February 2017

While the world reels at the seemingly draconian "executive orders" being rolled out by the USA's new president Donald Trump, I believe a more appalling situation exists right here in small-town New Zealand.

I'm talking about the illustrious South Waikato District Council which administers the town where I live.

I'm also talking about the suppression of free speech and a "hands on ears" approach to engaging with the public.

The star of this little drama is none other than RoddyAXN (Rod Young) who is a frequent contributor to the Aardvark Forums.

Here's how it all played out...

The newly elected Mayor of the SWDC decided that council should engage with the public by way of a "public forum" that is held for 30 minutes prior to most council meetings.

The public is invited, we were told, to have their say on issues and matters they believe the council should be aware of.

Now this is a great idea and indeed, people (including myself) have rolled up and voiced their opinions, concerns and suggestions to the mayor and elected members of the council. By and large, this has been a well organised session that has created some useful outcomes.

To date, very little criticism of the council or council staff has been voiced by way of this forum -- but that all changed last Thursday.

Mr Young took the opportunity to voice what he believes are valid complaints in respect to the performance of the district's CEO.

This went down like a lead balloon and, from what I've been told, as well as reports in the local paper, he was pounced on by the Mayor and council staff -- all of who were simply unprepared to hear anything so negative said about their beloved CEO.

Calling it a "personal attack", the Mayor told Mr Young to stop and has apparently requested staff to create an order that would ban him from attending council meetings for a period of three months.

Now hang on a God-damned minute!

I certainly don't agree with everything Roddy says and I do believe that he could be a little smarter in the way he presents some stuff but many of his complaints in respect to the CEO's abysmal performance are, in my honest opinion, 100% valid.

For a mayor to invite the public's comments and then shut down someone who dares to criticise the performance of her CEO is unacceptable. It is not only hypocritical but also an affront to the concept of free speech.

Perhaps the Mayor should be honest and rename her forum to the "thank the council" session, where only non-critical voices will be heard and everyone else can go to hell.

Even the editor of the local free paper (a Fairfax publication) which is usually very pro-council actually stepped up to the plate on this one and said "Criticsm is part of the job when you are in local government and people need to be sure that their concerns are being heard and considered, however unfair it might seem".

Many of us who feel strongly that we deserve good local governance have felt for a long time that the CEO of this council is decidedly sub-par, now perhaps the wider public will become aware of the fact and demand some action on the part of the Mayor and her councilors.

Time after time I have seen projects running wildly over-budget and under-delivering on the promises made for them but not once that I'm aware of, have those responsible been censured for their failures. Ultimately this is the job of the CEO and he is failing abysmally. That the Mayor refuses to censure the CEO for his inaction speaks to what some might consider an unhealthy relationship there as well.

It seems we have a council that prefers "cover-up" to "fix-up" when it comes to the deficiencies of its management team. Not good enough!

So what do you do when faced with a group of politicians who decide that protecting their staff from open and honest criticism usurps the right to free speech -- to such an extent that they will move to ban anyone who dares call the CEO's performance into question?

And how do you deal with a group who consider *any* criticism to be "a personal attack"?

Is it any wonder that Tokoroa remains a decile 10 town when those who are supposed to oversee its civic management and growth are so unwilling to accept criticism despite their very obvious failings?

I suggest that those wanting to read more on this refer to the editorial and the coverage on page 9 of this week's South Waikato News (which should be online somewhere).

And, for the record -- my offer to lease the Tokoroa Airfield over summer (for the princely sum of $3,000) and organise some world-class events there in order to bring a steady stream of visitors to the town was rejected by council staff as not being in the best interests of council. So, instead of taking my money and filling the towns cafes, restaurants and motels, the council has instead collected just $20 in landing fees (two landings) during the past three months of airfield operation. Did I mention that council staff were guilty of delivering misinformation?

If I raised this stupidity at one of the SWDC's public forums, would I also get banned from attending in future for engaging in a "personal attack"?

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