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The story published in the Southland Times on October 2 entitled ‘War of words erupts between the Southland District mayor and one of his challengers’ was disturbingly coy about explaining what the ‘war’ is all about.
Basically, the mayor has accused me of being a liar and suggested that everything I have written on my website is untrue. In defense of that accusation he points to a photograph that I mistakenly dated and subsequently took down, a statement that I made that he had been to China five times when he has only gone twice (a mistake published elsewhere) and that seems to be about it.
I have published pieces on my website about… infrastructure, transport, community owned electricity production on Stewart Island, The Around the Mountains Rail Trail, farming, relocating the capital of Southland to Winton, helping first home buyers onto the property ladder and many other subjects. I find his attempt to dismiss everything that I have written as inaccurate more than a little lame.
At the heart of ‘the war’ is our ongoing and fundamental disagreement about SdE, the Trust that currently handles rubbish recycling for Gore, Invercargill and Southland.
In connection with this matter I am also aware of the many unsubstantiated insinuations he has made about the Trust and public attempts he has made to intimidate me to remain silent. I regard this behaviour as genuinely alarming. The trust employs many disabled workers and the Mayor has been campaigning hard to replace them with a big north Island contractor that stands credibly accused of wide spread criminal fraud.
For those who may have felt a little less than informed by the Southland Times story let me again state my concerns about matters I had hoped our free and independent press would consider important enough to report.
At two public meetings recently Mr Tong has warned me against continuing to repeat allegations made in a major investigative piece published by the Weekend Herald concerning a company called Smart Environmental.
I have written that Mr Tong’s determination to end the recycling contract with SdE, the Trust that employs disabled workers to do work they find incredibly empowering and rewarding, makes no sense to me. The 5 million dollars SdE estimates it will cost to look after these workers on the public purse if they lose their jobs seems to me to far outweigh the alleged savings a change of contractor might achieve. However, as puzzling as I find Mr Tong’s determination to get rid of the disabled workers I find his continuing insistence that his preferred contractor is a paragon of virtue even more puzzling.
I have expressed publicly the reservations I have about this company and Mr Tong has responded by saying that everything I have said about them is untrue and that all published criticism of the company is based on the comments of a single disgruntled ex-employee. He says that he and council did their due diligence and the company is squeaky clean.
The first comment I would make is that Tong’s claim that everything I have repeated begins and ends with a disgruntled ex-employee of Smart Environmental is a deliberate attempt to misinform the public. The disgruntled ex-employee is most certainly an ex-employee of Smart Environmental, the company in question, but he is more relevantly a current competitor with a number of serious concerns about fairness. He had reason to suspect that Smart Environmental was not declaring all the commercial waste they disposed of at the Thames Coromandel District Council transfer stations they controlled and that they were also disposing of commercial waste outside the transfer stations’ normal operating hours at a significantly cheaper rate than other users of the transfer stations. He felt that if this was so his business was not able to compete with Smart Environmental because they might have a more beneficial arrangement than anyone else and he questioned the nature of the contract between the Council and the company.
The Weekend Herald investigation that followed was an independent examination of the facts and it is completely untrue, as Mr Tong has implied, that all it consisted of was a repetition of a ‘disgruntled ex-employee’s opinions’.
In fact, The Weekend Herald reported that it had found evidence of the company dumping after hours to avoid weighbridge systems that were supposed to ensure accurate records and payments and that even during daylight hours it was paying less than half the weighbridge printout records showed it had paid to council. They also reported evidence of altered spreadsheets, missing dockets and missing revenue.
There was, the paper claimed, clear evidence of trashed recycling and hundreds of tonnes of unaccounted waste at transfer stations the company operated for the council.
The matter is now the subject of a defamation action and Mr Tong may feel he can take some comfort from that. However, he and his fellow supporters of the company should consider what their position will be if those defending the defamation action carry the day.
Mr Tong has also insisted publicly that I am wrong when I say that Smart Environmental is being investigated by the Thames Coromandel District Council and that the Office of Auditor general is in turn investigating the council over its management of the contract with Smart Environmental. He said something about ringing someone up and being assured that there were no investigations going on. However, I am assured by the author of the Weekend Herald piece that Mr Tong is mistaken and again it would seem that his comments misinform the public.
Accordingly, I regard Mr Tong’s public warnings to me of serious consequences if I continue to repeat allegations made about Smart Environmental are a completely improper attempt to intimidate me into silence. He has also stated that any reliance I may place on the fact that these allegations have been made public is somehow no protection against the consequences he warns me about. He has stated that the Weekend Herald is wrong and cautioned me against believing everything I read in the newspaper. I certainly do not believe everything I read in newspapers but I also know that if something is in the public domain I have the right to share it publicly. I believe his comments reveal a disturbing lack of knowledge of the law as it applies to basic civil liberties. As our mayor Mr Tong has reacted before to what seems a fair and valid questioning of his intentions with a warning to those that challenge him to be very careful how they say something or face an implied threat. This behaviour is not acceptable.
The recycling contract has occasioned much criticism for the way it has been handled so far by the mayors and councillors who have tried to push through the change. Nobby Clark, the outspoken representative of the Ratepayers Advocacy Group in Invercargill has been particularly scathing. Mr Clark, who is standing for election as an Invercargill councillor, wrote that he was ‘staggered that while Mayors Tong and Hicks repeatedly say they are still restrained by a tender process that has yet to be finalised (and had the WasteNet lawyer reinforce that) yet when they don’t like the ICC vote they feel free (1) to discredit ICC (2) to discredit SdE and its offer (3) and suggest they will release information to inform the public of their position. He described a media release by Mayor Tong and Mayor Hicks as a being misinformation and a smear against SdE.
The insistence that there is information to come out that has some crucial bearing on the matter has been characteristic of the attack on SdE.
Mr Tong informed me at one stage that I needed to be briefed by him so that I ended up on the same page as him. I declined as I believe that if there is further information about the matter it should have been released to the public before a vote was taken by the Invercargill City Council to get rid of SdE, a vote that was only narrowly averted.
Another characteristic, as noted by Nobby Clark is a habit of refusing to discuss the matter in any meaningful way because of confidentiality issues while somehow feeling free to deprecate SdE with all sorts of vague references to financial, management and health and safety issues. SdE’s position with regard to contract negotiations has, I believe, been completely misrepresented with such tactics
The thing that I find most offensive about Mr Tong’s behaviour is his repeated assurances that he has the best interests of the SdE workers at heart.
He says this even though the 16 year contract he wanted to sign off with Smart Environmental made no mention of them. He says this even though WasteNet has told SdE that the fate of the workers was irrelevant to contract negotiations. He has stated at various times that he hopes to soon have good news for the workers but never delivers.
More recently he has stated publicly that he has been in contact with the Department of Social Development to discuss the futures of the workers although his exact meaning was vague. However, SdE respond that they have an assurance from the Ministry that they would never discuss a confidential contract with a third party – which Mr Tong is. I call on Mr Tong to tell the workers of SdE who live under a constant threat that they will lose their jobs the context and results of these conversations with the Ministry and of his other efforts to deliver good news to them.
Right now The Queenstown Mountain Scene reports that ‘City Hall won’t say if it’ll take action against its former waste contractor after issues with the new site have caused headaches across the board.’
A council official said that the facility had needed a lot of attention since it was transferred back from the previous operator, Smart Environmental. The council was undertaking repairs at the site, meaning recyclables would be sorted at another location next week. Twenty-five tonnes of contaminated recycling also had to be removed and taken to landfill, and the facility had to be fumigated because of the large number of rats. The official said that the council had instructed Smart Environmental to resolve the rat problem for handover and because this did not happen there were further delays in getting the facility up and running for the new operator Waste Management.
Council maintenance and operations manager Erin Moogan said that the council had not decided what, if any, action to take against former contractor Smart Environmental for the problems to date while the council confirmed that the cost of getting the facility up to scratch was still unknown.
All this leaves me with a question that has puzzled many Southlanders from the beginning of this strange saga and that is ‘why are they doing it?’ The claimed savings for the entire region are now put at about $365k per annum, always assuming the three councils actually received what they were paying for and that the contract was not speedily renegotiated.
For Southland District Council’s 31% share that’s about $113k a year. It would be interesting to know what all this has already cost the ratepayers of Southland in legal and other costs.
In fact, the revision of the figures down from a $750k saving across all three councils, which was widely promoted by the pro Smart Environmentalists, followed a successful LGOIMA request by SdE for a document called the WasteNet Southland Proposal Evaluation Report, or PER.
Although both the Invercargill City Council and The Southland District Council were prepared to hand over only heavily redacted versions Gore District Council for some reason sent the whole thing. Rex Chapman, SdE’s lawyer, soon after wrote a response to the report to the Chief Executive of the Invercargill City Council in which he stated that ‘An analysis of the PER and the Waste Advisory Group report shows that there are very serious inaccuracies with both documents which in our view would have misled Councillors when deliberating on the issue.
The lawyer identified examples throughout the PER report of bias, falsehoods, unsubstantiated presumptions, exaggerations, imprudent and misleading errors and serious discrepancies, all of which were damaging to SdE and supportive of Smart Environmental.
Mr Chapman concluded that ‘we are confident that this RFP process will not stand any independent scrutiny. The errors we have highlighted in this letter just add to the list of problems which includes whether the RFP process was ever authorised by the council in the first place’. To date, WasteNet has not disputed any of my Chapman’s letter.
This leaves Mr Tong, who stepped in to the Waste Advisory Group when one of the six members stood down, with one crucially important question to answer.
Why, with everything hanging in the air in the North Island and with this going on just up the road, is he so determined to get rid of SdE and to get this company into Southland?
Mr Tong is a trustee of the Koha Kai Trust, a rival provider of services to the disabled in Southland. Perhaps this has coloured his thinking.
In my opinion it should certainly have disqualified him from any part in these regrettable proceedings, including stepping in to the Waste Advisory Group. His participation seems to me to represent a direct conflict of interest.
Janice Lee, the head of Koha Kai and an unswerving supporter of Tong’s, has written that the decision makers who elected to take the contract to tender felt they had no choice in the matter and added that everyone was aware of a direction from central government regarding ‘wages and such’. Whatever this might mean it is at the very least an endorsement of the process to get rid of SdE with the same sort of vague inferences against SdE that Mr Tong habitually employs.
I have come to the conclusion that the only way to obtain honest answers to the many concerning questions this issue raises is through a properly conducted official enquiry and I am therefore calling for just that.