Controversial centre sparks testy exchanges

The spirit of Christmas was in the air, at least for a while, at Tuesday night's New Plymouth District Council meeting.

There was even some Christmas cake on a table beside the tea urn, carefully cut into tiny slices. After all there had been a council workshop for 4 1/2 hours on the review of the council's level of service. Which, to put into English, means a few of them have been looking at ways of saving some dough to keep the rates rises down.

Mayor Harry, as is now the custom, welcomed both spectators (the other two were submitters), the media (both of us) and everyone else. So far things were going well, with an obliging agenda that was notable for its brevity and only four items, if you exclude the increasingly frequent addition these days of the "Recommendation to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting."

That was probably just as well. Councillors looked a little jaded and could have been excused for wanting the meeting to be over sooner, rather than later. One thing that was obvious was several male councillors visiting the toilet during the brief interlude, but it wasn't a case of diarrhoea; they were putting their ties on, as per standing orders, for the council meeting.

Curiously, during the meeting, some male senior managers were sitting around the same debating table giving advice and explanations to the Elected Ones, and there wasn't a tie in sight. So it seems the rules only apply to councillors, but not the staff. Interesting.

Despite the small agenda, there was some anticipation with the awareness that the meeting also had two deputations. The first was from Dr John Valentine. A resident of Messenger Pl in Oakura, he was worried that some residents, current or future, could be growing trees that are higher than the equivalent four-storey maximum height for buildings. He was also concerned that a developer could buy four sections and put up a high(ish)-rise building and ruin it for the others who live in the most expensive street in the district.

There was some sympathy for his concerns, but as council officer Colin Comber pointed out, the district plan only covers buildings, not vegetation. So that was that.

Then came Len Houwers. He is probably the council's least favourite opponent these days, and he is the most energetic. He had done his own independent online survey on the controversial Len Lye Centre and was there to share the results with councillors.

He sensibly began by saying he would concentrate on the "key outcomes" of the survey.

He went through several slides on the data he'd gathered and he was typically comprehensive, but succinct.

The fun came at question time. There was a degree of pooh- poohing from councillors. Was he disappointed with only getting 375 responses? "Yes, but what would be the basis for the council to ignore the survey findings?"

After more misgivings were aired, Houwers suggested that if the council had reservations about his survey, then maybe it would like to do its own?

It was a poignant moment, but the relatively polite exchanges were quickly shattered when Cr Horse (John McLeod) rode into the debate with both guns blazing. Neither of his guns were aimed at Houwers, however.

They are pretty much on the same side, so it came as no surprise when Cr Horse's colleagues became the target. There was nothing subtle about it either.

It was a statement, with a question tagged on to keep it company. "Was he (Houwers) aware that under section 8, clause 2 of the council's agreement with the Len Lye Foundation that the council could opt out of the centre any time it liked, but councillors didn't have enough guts to . . ."

"Councillor McLeod," interrupted Mayor Harry, "I am not going to allow that. You need to withdraw, or rephrase, your question or I will disallow it!"

"I thought I put it nicely, Your Worship," replied Cr Horse. It was said with a straight face, but Harry, far more battle-hardened than he was two years ago, was having none of it.

Both fired a few more salvos before the question was eventually withdrawn. Christmas it may be, but unlike the warring factions in World War I, when the English and German soldiers called a temporary truce to play a game of football on Christmas Day, no such niceties seem likely here.

There was more questioning of Houwers, but to this writer's horror, my cellphone went off, which meant a quick, embarrassed exit from the council chambers, with a $50 donation to a charity of my choice as per the long-standing protocol - the only redeeming feature of my unforgivable oversight.

Mayor Harry was quick to pounce upon my return, and I have since donated $50 to a worthy cause - the Taranaki Safer Families Centre Trust.

Councillors appeared to enjoy my discomfort, which seemed to contribute to the meeting rediscovering its Christmas spirit.

There wasn't a lot more, and at 5.17pm, that was it for 2012, a mere 47 minutes after the meeting began, it was all over.

Mayor Harry generously wished everybody a merry Christmas and a happy New Year, leaving us to file out for them to go into public excluded.

Taranaki Daily News