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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th 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 is no more in Tokoroa

22 January 2021

As regular readers will doubtless be aware, my relationship with the local council, and in particular our beloved lady Mayor, has been a little tempestuous at times.

For many years I've been trying to get the council to wake up to the potential of their airfield as a community asset. I've also been trying to get them to comply, as the "airfield operator" with the regulations as published by CAA.

One of the councilors summed up their attitude in a single sentence some years ago when he said:

"Bruce, you have some very good ideas but, because it's you..."

Personally I don't give a rat's arse what people say to me or about me but I do care when those who have entered into a binding contract with ratepayers feel they have a right to breach that contract if they don't like someone.

The contract that's formed when a councilor (or any politician) is elected consists of them soliciting your vote (the offer). You giving them that vote (the consideration) and them accepting the position for which they've run (the acceptance).

Amost without exception, those running for positions of power make all sorts of promises such as "doing their best", "having an open-door" and "working for the voters" etc, etc.

Sadly, the reality is that once elected, many of these promises are forgotten by those to whom you gave your vote.

Now the very basic tenet of any equitable and functional modern democracy is that of free speech. Every person must be free to express their opinions, their beliefs and their thoughts. It is by way of this freedom of speech that we ensure a healthy democracy is not subverted by those who might otherwise seek to suppress that with which they do not agree.

Here in the South Waikato, the council as a "public forum" before each meeting. In that public forum, members of the public are invited to talk to council for up to five minutes, exercising their freedom of speech and passing on those thoughts, opnions, ideals and beliefs in a concise and time-efficient manner.

When this forum first started, there were no prescriptive rules other than be polite and not offensive.

It soon become apparent that many of those taking advantage of this forum were not delivering messages the council wanted to hear. Complaints about the way they'd been treated by council were not uncommon and it appeared that the forum was allowing the public to highlight a multitude of problems and deficiencies.

Since this did not suit the council and particularly not the Mayor, the list of prescriptive rules associated with speaking at the forum began to grow. Presenters were prohibited from criticising council staff or councilors and a raft of other prohibitions and restrictions were added such that there is now an "public forum rules" sheet that takes up almost an entire A4 sheet of paper stationed outside the council chambers.

The five-minute time limit was also rather subjectively enforced. The few who came to praise council in any way were often granted significant extensions to their time, whereas those who dared to highlight deficiencies or ask embarassing questions were stopped hard at the five minute mark.

These restrictions mean that what should have been a valuable way for the public to connect with councilors is now little more than a joke in terms of free speech.

I spoke yesterday at a meeting to point out that business inquiries were going unanswered by council staff, they were still in non-compliance with CAA regulations and that the potential of the airfield was still being wasted by incompetence, laziness and just downright poor performance. One councilor (the same one I quoted at the start of this column and one who also publicly berated me in a previous public forum presentation for not having a dog (I kid you not) attempted to have me shut down before I'd even got started.

The mayor said I could continue but then, at the end of my five minutes, I was told that I could never speak about the airfield again in the public forum. The reason given was that people are allowed to speak only once on any subject -- even though the first person in the forum that day regularly speaks to the same subject in the forum and will doubtless be speaking again in future forums -- as should be his right.

Why am I forbidden to speak but not others? "because it's you..."

Yes, it seems that despite the fact I presented a raft of evidence to back up my claims in respect to the fact the council was endangering lives, in breach of CAA regulations and had completely ignored a number of businesses that had contacted them over setting up shop at the airfield... I am now muted due to my presentation of inconvenient but irrefutable facts.

It is *very* clear that the Mayor does not want to address nor even acknowledge the attrocious performance of her council. Rather than taking onboard the information presented, she would rather ignore it and use her power to suppress its existance.

Don't fix-up, just cover-up.

Blissful ignorance seems to be her strategy when it comes to extremely important issues that have been going on for extended periods of time.

And if you're wondering why I bother to use the public forum instead of dealing directly with councilors? Well items discussed in the public forum become a minuted matter of public record and that leaves a documentary trail. I want to be sure that when something very bad happens as a result of council's negligence, intransigence, incompetence and non-compliance, the correct people are held to account. I want it clearly documented that they had been warned on multiple occasions of the issues and that they chose to ignore it.

In that regard, the Mayor's ban on free speech has, in my honest opinion, clearly cemented her culpability in the matter.

Ah, politics and bureaucracy, such good bedmates and so consistent in their ability to disappoint.

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