Rebellion in paradise: The ratepayers who fought the law and won
Mangawhai is a part of the country where it seems hard to imagine anyone becoming too worried about anything. It's too far up the coast to really be Auckland but it's not quite yet Northland-proper.
There's a pub, a couple of restaurants. It's a prime spot for holiday homes or retirees escaping the city.
But for much of the past decade, it's also been the site of one of the country's most strident rates revolts, as locals refused to pay a "rates bomb" levied to fund a cost blowout on a $60 million wastewater scheme.
Pensioners who had never fallen afoul of authority were suddenly touting protest signs and handing out pamphlets.
"I have always been very law-abiding but this rebellion is all rather exciting," said one 85-year-old striker as battle lines were drawn in 2012.
Now the Kaipara ratepayers revolt have earned a legal victory that could have major implications for other prospective putschs.
The High Court at Whangarei has ruled that the rates Kaipara District Council collected on behalf of the Northland Regional Council between 2011 and 2016 were invalid.
The rates did not meet the requirements of the Rating Act - the setting of rates requires a formal resolution that sets the dates on which each instalment is payable. The Northland Regional Council did not set those dates. It also failed to assess its rates.
It will be clear soon whether the council plans to appeal that ruling. Ratepayers could apply to have their rates returned. The decision has implications well beyond the Whangarei and Far North District ratepayers who are also affected.
There's also the matter of the remaining court action against striking ratepayers to be resolved.
Bruce and Heather Rogan have already appeared in court and lost over their refusal to pay $50,000 in outstanding rates and penalties - they are still waiting for a decision on their High Court appeal. A handful of other cases remain.
Throughout the battle, the pensioners have been the face of their cause. Sometimes that has meant attacks on them personally - in 2013 "bludger" stickers were pasted over many of the 200 signs posted in front of the properties of striking ratepayer, which read "Another striking Mangawhai property." At the time, protesters suggested the district council might have been responsible - something it vehemently denied.
There was a sense among some parts of Kaipara that the Mangawhai protesting community were rich retirees who had moved up from Auckland and didn't want to pay their share for the development of the infrastructure.
Rogan says the protest is out of character for them. They had never even been late with a rate bill until they decided to stop paying in protest in 2012.
"We tried to say to the High Court, through our lawyer, 'you need to understand the Rogans have never had a dispute with anybody in their lives'."
But it was at a council meeting five years ago that he decided something had to be done.
"They adopted their rates resolution, in our view completely illegally. I went to the CEO and deputy mayor when they were still sitting there after the lunch adjournment had started and said 'by doing this you've given us no alternative but to get a judicial review of the decision'."
The fight has come at a personal cost. This was meant to be their retirement – Rogan spent 28 years at IBM and had a stint in the health system before moving to Mangawhai. But the Rogans have bounced from one court hearing to the next, at turns winning and losing. Rogan also ran an unsuccessful mayoral campaign. Its Facebook page has 48 likes.
"We would like to have spent a bit of this time overseas but we've always had another bloody hearing hanging over us that we have to front up to. Our lives have been put on hold by this, that's for sure," he says.
"There's a lot of things we haven't done that we would otherwise have done. Also, you have to bear in mind that five years of your life when you're 70 is a very big percentage of your life. Because if you're lucky, you last til you're 90. Five years when you're 70 is 20 per cent of your life. Gone."
There has been a financial cost too, although Rogan says it's neither here nor there in the scheme of things. "You either have the money or you don't. We've been lucky in life to have the money to get by on the skin of our teeth."
The local community has rallied behind them, coming up with $400,000 to cover legal costs. "People would come round to my place with $10 because they happened to be able to find $10 to put into the case," Rogan says.
There's never been much argument that the situation wasn't handled well. It took a retrospective validation act in Parliament to make Kaipara District Council rates lawful. Commissioners took the place of the elected council and only handed back to the democratic process last year.
Rogan's neighbour, holiday home-owner and retired Balmoral lawyer Clive Boonham says he joined the fight against the dodgy rates out of a sense of injustice. "I looked at it and thought 'this is not just illegal, this is patently illegal'. This is like mafia levies, it doesn't even follow the rules."
Boonham estimates the outstanding amount he owes the council is now about $65,000, thanks to the addition of penalties every six months.
Strikers have offered to pay the rates they owe, but do not want to pay the penalties, too. At one point, the group turned up at council with half-a-million dollars in cheques to settle the stand-off. It was rejected.
"Every six months another 10 per cent is added," Boonham says. "Not only have you got your 10 per cent penalty but you've got your 20 per cent per annum compounding so you run into massive bills."
Councils apply payments to the oldest part of a rates bill, so those who have tried to pay their rates while the court deals with the dispute have not been able to.
Rogan's group recently switched its legal representation to Whangarei law firm Henderson Reeves.
The law firm's director Thomas Biss says what they have done is heroic and could be used as a template for other ratepayers who find their councils have acted illegally.
"It's important that people stand up and say 'if the Government is going to rule, it's important that it acts in accordance with the laws'.
"The personal risk these guys took to stand up and say 'no you can't do that, you're wrong' on a point of principle is hugely brave."
The protesters were a bit like Dad's Army, he said. "Last time I spoke to them one was out pruning the roses. That's what they do when they're not bringing down the government."
Northland MP Winston Peters says the council's "poor judgement and mismanagement" was the problem and it was unfair ratepayers had been left with the bill.
"They should never have been put through this," he says.
Whatever happens now, Rogan says he and his group won't file any more legal action. If it all goes against them, he and Heather may up sticks and head back to Auckland. The bitter taste left by the fight would blight their enjoyment of Mangawhai forever, he says.
He is not sure whether he would have taken on the fight, had he known how long it would take.
"We knew enough about how these things work to know they wouldn't just roll over and give in. We didn't realise how determined the government was to kill us. On every count we knew we were right and we knew we were up against the forces of darkness, who really don't give a stuff about what the rights and wrongs of things are, they'd just pour money onto the problem until it goes away. We just said we were not going to be treated that way."
He says he and Boonham have been united in the view that it was important that everyone stuck to the law. "Not some people subject to them and some people not but everyone subject to them under the law. Someone's got to take a stand somewhere or we end up in anarchy."
Boonham says he's still waiting to get on with his retirement, too: "I came up here to fish and play golf or whatever but I work every day on this. We've had some successes. Some failures as well. But we know we're right."
THE STORY OF THE RATES BOMB
2008: Kaipara District Council ratepayers started to be charged rates to cover the cost of the new Mangawhai sewerage system. Concerns were first raised that the rates did not comply with the law.
2011: Cost blow-out of the sewerage scheme is revealed. The council had consulted on the basis that it was to cost less than $17m. The final cost was $62.4m.
2012: Legal opinion tells the council that the rates are non-compliant.
2012: Kaipara District Council proposes big rates increase to cover the blow-out, on average 31 per cent per property. Rates strike begins. Commissioners appointed to the council.
2012: Act of parliament validates the unlawful rates.
2012: Mangawhai Residents and Ratepayers Association goes to the High Court. The judge ruled the rates in question had been validated but the sewerage scheme and the loan to pay for it were unlawful. But because the council was liable for the debts, ratepayers had to be responsible.
2014: Striking ratepayers offer $550,000 to settle their bill. The commissioners refused the payment. Legal proceedings against rates strikers began. Northland Regional Council did not take payment of its outstanding rates directly, so it became part of the legal action.
- Sunday Star Times