Freshwater and live-streaming frustrations in election year

Sometimes what you think is the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a train steaming towards you.

In recent weeks around the Horizons regional council table, I was pleasantly surprised by a (albeit slim) majority of councillors voting for an increase to freshwater funding. Then, same day, we won a vote to continue and extend our live-streaming trial, bringing in committee meetings where the meaty conversations mostly happen. A win for transparency and being accessible, and listening to the feedback from our community, or so I thought. 

But, as they say, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. The recommendations were overturned at the full council last week.

I was so disappointed that I couldn’t convince enough of my colleagues of the value of the freshwater investment or the benefits to sharing more of our staff briefings and debates. The full council meeting is usually a rubber-stamping affair – although ironically not at this last meeting. In my term, it is the first time I recall a committee recommendation being relitigated and overturned.

I get it – raising rates above an arbitrary round number of 5% in an election year may not feel like a sensible play, but it seems deeply cynical to me to drop funding for one of our community’s top priorities, freshwater improvement. The reality is that our freshwater grant funding is oversubscribed – we have a waiting list of people who want to access subsidies to fence their properties to get stock out of streams. We’re not meeting the demand, and our water quality monitoring continues to show serious challenges, particularly in our local streams Mowhanau, Kai Iwi and Ototoka.

Increasing rates is not something taken lightly and every cent adds up, but another $75,000 for freshwater across our community would have meant well less than a dollar on the annual Horizons bill. It was our chance to show we were listening to the widespread (and unfortunately warranted) community concerns about freshwater.

However, the vote to restrict the live-streaming to only full council meetings makes even less sense. The reality is our committee meetings are the interesting part – that’s where we get detailed presentations from staff and discuss our different points of view. If my colleagues support people across our region being able to see the full council in action, why wouldn’t they agree to sharing the discussions of substance? It doesn’t seem rational to me.

Now getting out-voted is something I’ve gotten used to during my first term on Horizons. This time though we had been publicly congratulated on our move into 2019 with live-streaming. While the numbers of people who had viewed the recordings had not been huge, there were still a good start, particularly given the lack of promotion. One strategy and policy meeting video on Facebook had 842 views.

Of course, the true benefit of the video is not watching it in real time from the comfort of your home, or even saving on the travel to get to Palmerston North. It’s the benefit of being able to scan to the topics that you’re interested in, saving time. 

Using Facebook to live-stream was an affordable and pragmatic way to get information out without filters. Now we’re being justifiably condemned for taking a step backwards.

It’s still two months before the deadline on making a final decision on whether to seek re-election but it’s definitely time to start reflecting on the question of “have I made a difference?” and the closely-related question of “has it been worth it?”

When people ask me how it’s been my answer usually involves the words “ups and downs” and “a few frustrations”. But overall, the truth is I’m glad to have been there.  

I’d like to think I’ve been part of a move towards more openness and taking a more holistic look at environmental management. Time will tell whether I’ve been part of a deeper turning point, but one thing I do know is that voting matters – who you vote for later this year will make the difference on issues like these and more. The reality is the numbers voting matter both in our communities and around our table of 12 councillors. Please make an informed choice.