Regional council is shutting down free speech

RACHEL STEWART
Last updated 08:18 03/09/2012

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OPINION: There's a method to Taranaki Regional Council's recent anti-democratic madness. However, it may yet prove to be a step too far.

Sarah Roberts is a Hawera High School teacher and her husband, David Morrison, is a dairy farmer.

South Taranaki District councillor Mike Self is well-known as the dishevelled, loveable TV 'Lotto man'.

By refusing any further information requests from these three, and describing them as 'deliberately mischievous' and 'plainly vexatious', chief executive Basil Chamberlain knows exactly what he is doing.

Now that he has ensured all his councillors unanimously agree, Taranaki Regional Council can attempt to use two pieces of legislation to hide behind when asked questions that they can't or, more to the point, don't want to answer.

One is the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987. Section 17 gives the reasons information requests may be refused and, wonder of wonders, under (h) we find "that the request is frivolous or vexatious or that the information requested is trivial".

Of course, you might think the trio could then use the Official Information Act (OIA) to gather information. While it is both time- consuming and slow, it is always an option. However, Mr Chamberlain thought ahead on that one too.

He can now try to block any such requests on the same grounds.

The problem he's got is that the Office of the Ombudsman has taken the matter of what 'frivolous' and 'vexatious' is very seriously.

As such they have followed the interpretation that the courts have taken when considering whether a request is 'frivolous or vexatious'.

'In this context, the courts have considered that: to be 'frivolous', pleadings must be so clearly frivolous that to put them forward would be an abuse of the process of court; and to be 'vexatious', the claim must be such that no reasonable person could properly treat it as bona fide (that is, having been made in good faith).'

They also go on say that, 'It is important to note that a distinction needs to be drawn between requests that are considered to be 'frivolous or vexatious' and requesters who are considered to be so.

'The Act does not permit requests to be refused simply on the grounds that a requester has already made numerous, possibly time-consuming requests, which, in the eyes of the organisation dealing with the requester, appear to serve no practical purpose.

"It is not the identity of the requester that determines whether a request is 'frivolous or vexatious', but the nature of the request made in light of the surrounding circumstances.'

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TRC deciding via an ill- conceived decree that the questioners are naughty and annoying is a long bow to draw.

My advice to all three is to ask the Ombudsman to remind TRC that they are breaking the law if they refuse to process any future information requests under either of those Acts.

Reading through Mr Chamberlain's correspondence to Sarah Roberts, and his councillors, it is very clear that his biggest motivator is some recent letters to the editor in the Taranaki Daily News that were highly critical of TRC processes and monitoring around fracking.

Bad press is never welcome by any organisation, but TRC consistently shows a low tolerance for it. However, they need to truly appreciate that freedom of speech is part of a democracy. Sometimes, that extends to taking harsh criticism and staying level-headed about it.

New Zealand soldiers have died, and will die, to uphold this right. To vilify ratepayers for asking questions in good faith is a huge mistake.

Because I am on Ms Roberts' media email list I have sighted and studied virtually every piece of correspondence between her and TRC.

So, is Ms Roberts deserving of TRC's harsh criticism?

I am in no doubt whatsoever that her questions to TRC have never been even close to vexatious, mischievous, or frivolous. In all cases they have been the polar opposite of trivial. They are well-researched, assertive but polite, and always asked with both good intent and good faith. She and her family are heavily impacted by Tag Oil's Cheal operation next to their land.

She has every right to ask questions about water and air quality, flaring, and monitoring of oil and gas.

These questions have mostly evolved from her research into TRC's own documentation and reports. Invariably she ends up with more questions than answers because things just don't tally. I know this because if you look hard enough it's soon very apparent.

TRC needs to stop the bullishness and adopt a more conciliatory approach.

It reflects badly on TRC management, but even more on the deathly quiet and compliant elected representatives.

I will leave the last word to the affable Cr Mike Self when he said, 'I'm not a vexatious man, I care about the community'. If only TRC could find it in themselves to just try and look like they're doing the same.

- Taranaki Daily News

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