Mr Tong turns down free money

The Southland District Council elects not to apply for a slice of the governments’ Responsible Camping fund.

By Tim Hanna

At our last public meeting, the current mayor was asked why The Southland District Council did not apply for a slice of the $8 million the government just gave away to help councils manage Freedom Camping? The gentleman who asked the question was clearly irked at the council’s failure to put its hand up for a bit of free money – money which could easily relieve some of the burdens on ratepayers.

When I first heard about it I presumed that someone in the council had simply failed to put in the application, but Mr Tong assured the meeting that a decision had been made not to apply. He told the meeting that Councillor John Douglas had been working on the matter but that it was not easy to get the money and that the council did not have a suitable project for the funding. However, he did assure that meeting that the council would be ready to apply next year.

This will puzzle many Southlanders who know that Council could have applied this year and next year and who can probably name any number of worthy recipients for free money to ‘help councils manage freedom camping in their regions during peak summer season’. Not least, of course, the very town he was speaking in. Many of you will know that Lumsden has been a bit of a pioneer when it comes to Freedom Camping, which it allows around its historic railway station.

Thirty-nine councils did manage to figure out the paperwork and were rewarded with gifts of varying amounts. Queenstown Lakes District Council got nearly $788,000 while Buller received $378,000. The Buller application asked for money to clean toilets among other things and it is hard to understand why the Southland District Council would not have applied for free money that could have been used for similar purposes. It’s even harder to understand the decision given that free money could have been spent to relieve some financial burden on ratepayers. 

One question that went unasked of Mr Tong was if his council had bothered to apply for some of the 2018/2019 funds. Checking back, the answer to that would appear to be no.

Given that’s two years in a row SDC has not applied or has been turned down, it would seem that quite a lot of free money has gone begging. 

The SDC is a branch of government and this apparent refusal to even apply for funding the government clearly wants councils to have to help them better manage the many challenges presented by Freedom Camping is inexcusable. To claim there are no suitable projects as an excuse for this failure is transparently ridiculous. 

Mr Tong’s attitude toward Freedom Camping here in Lumsden may offer a more understandable explanation. Perhaps as a camping ground owner, he simply detests them. He once told a story about seeing a naked man having a scrub behind his van when he went to Lumsden to attend a meeting of locals about the issue. Oddly he did not mention his encounter to the meeting or to the warranted custodian of the camping area who was also present at the meeting. He did not as Mayor report the matter to local police to deal with or approach the man himself to object to his naked state. He did not mention it in fact to anyone for several days when he decided to tell reporters about it adding that ‘it’s not something we want our kids to see.’

In all the years that I have observed freedom camping in Lumsden, I have never seen a naked camper. Neither has the custodian and in fact, he reports that there has never been a serious situation arise and that the campers are well behaved and respectful. Neither, so far as I am aware, has anyone else reported such nakedness. I am not saying that Major Tong simply made this story up but it is a remarkable coincidence that he just happened to be there the one time this seems to have happened.

In October 2017, soon after the alleged incident, The Tong council occasioned an eruption of confusion around Freedom Camping in Lumsden. The local CDA, with encouragement from Mr Tong, conducted a referendum to determine if the status quo should remain regarding Freedom Camping in the town or if the parking available to vehicles should be further restricted to reduce numbers. Not on the ballot was an option to ban tents although there was one to redefine the area where they were allowed.

Mr Tong stated publicly that it was entirely up to the Lumsden community acting through their elected CDA to determine the way they wanted to handle Freedom Camping.  ‘It puts’, he said, ‘the local in local government.’

It did not turn out that way.

The vote showed that the overwhelming majority of the community did not care about the issue enough to even take part and that of the thirty per cent who did a narrow margin favoured a new tent site and were opposed to enlarging space put aside for vehicles. Council stated they therefore accepted the mandate in favour of the status quo but then caused enormous confusion by posting signs around the area banning camping in anything other than self-contained campers. This was not of course one of the options voted upon.

This was also according to some a direct violation of the existent bylaws although Mr Tong claimed to have sought legal advice to eliminate non-self-contained campers. Requests for him to share this advice, asked for under the Official Information Act, by the warranted custodian were apparently ignored. However, these actions seemed to indicate an absolute lack of respect for the due process undertaken by the Lumsden CDA, a fundamental disregard for, or ignorance of the law and a betrayal of Mr Tong’s oath to let locals determine the outcome.

The custodian later had his position advertised by council officers who also sent two security guards from Invercargill to take over his duties. The custodian resisted and it seems the decision to muscle out a properly warranted, unpaid and highly effective volunteer with a couple of paid security guards was eventually abandoned.

However, Mr Tong can draw comfort from the fact if he gets back in the CDA’s are finished altogether and he won’t need to confront independent, elected locals who have ideas of their own. In the meantime, he has yet again failed to collect a bucket full of free money on behalf of the ratepayers of Southland for reasons that seem to be supported by no ideas whatever.

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