Waitara River friends face $12,000 bill

HELEN HARVEY
Last updated 05:00 31/01/2013
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JONATHAN CAMERON
Fiona Clark

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A Tikorangi woman is facing legal action after disputing fees relating to a Taranaki Regional Council resource consent hearing.

In 2011 Friends of Waitara River, of which Fiona Clark is a member, wanted resource consent applications from the New Plymouth District Council regarding the Waitara Marine Outfall to be heard by independent commissioners, as opposed to regional councillors.

TRC director of corporate services Mike Nield said the law was quite clear.

"If you ask for independent commissioners and you incur a lot of costs for ratepayers, then you have to pay for it."

If the cost - $12,000 - was not paid, legal action would be taken.

The council can, under section 36 of the Resource Management Act, waive the fee, but it won't.

"Why should we do that? This is ratepayers' money. [The group] made some personal decisions and they are asking us to pay for it. Council doesn't think that is the right thing to do."

Last year Friends of Waitara River appealed against the council's decision in the Environment Court and lost.

Mr Nield wouldn't say how much the TRC has paid in court costs and legal fees, but said these costs hadn't been charged to Miss Clark. However, any further legal costs would be.

"They were told it was at their own cost, repeatedly and they said yes, they understood that but they still wanted independent commissioners."

The council has told Miss Clark that according to its legal advice, she was the leader of the group, therefore she is liable. And it was up to her to recover costs from the other parties - Andrea Moore and Robert Taylor - which Miss Clark thinks is unfair. She believes the group never agreed to pay the costs.

"We told them at meetings, we're not accepting the costs."

However, the Environment Court said they should have lodged an official form, she said.

"No-one told us we had to do that. The Environment Court ruling said ‘they have no legal advice. We completely understand, but no formal lodgement of an objection was received'."

Minutes from the TRC consents and regulatory meeting in August 30, 2011 state: "Following a pre-hearing meeting in Waitara, a group of submitters requested the council exercise discretion and remit the charge."

The minutes also show councillor Mike Davey recommended the costs be remitted, but the council decided not to do so.

Green Party spokeswoman for the RMA and local government Eugenie Sage has written a letter to TRC chairman David MacLeod asking him to waive the fee.

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Councils usually appointed external commissioners so there was no risk of bias or predetermination, she said.

"It's really important to maintain public confidence in the process with something like Waitara, which has been so controversial for a generation. It would have been sensible if they had external commissioners from the start . . . so it's very unusual for the regional council to do what they have done. Certainly Friends of Waitara were warned, but there is a risk of the council being seen as trying to intimidate community organisations."

The commissioners' decision made it clear they were grateful for the involvement of Friends of Waitara in the consent application and some of their comments on the draft conditions led to changes in those conditions, she said.

"Providing wastewater treatment and disposal infrastructure is a core function of the New Plymouth District Council and that is a cost that should legitimately be carried by ratepayers and not burdening a community organisation which is an advocate for clean water."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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