Robinson Report: Is charm offensive too late

By Reihana Robinson, Geoffrey


Just like a jilted lover, Waikato Regional Council is doing everything it can to win back the hearts of its Coromandel customers.

With close to $10 million in annual rates revenue on the line, WRC has unleashed a public relations charm offensive that has peninsula residents wondering where their high-flying regional council has been all these years.

As a strong movement for local self-governance gathers momentum in the eastern Waikato, WRC has unleashed a feel good blitz that would make even aggressive marketers blush.

Around the table in Hamilton East, councillors openly discuss their Coromandel "relationship problems".

Sensing correctly the political horse has bolted, the council has been tripping over itself this summer in an effort to "listen to the community", burnish its image, and convince residents they get value for money. As a steady stream of press releases and unusual 'public meetings' can attest, WRC has been working overtime in its troubled Coromandel waters.

The catalyst for the attention is the push for a stand-alone unitary council for the Thames-Coromandel District. It would combine the functions of district and regional government. The first 1000 signatures on a citizen petition were presented in November to Thames-Coromandel District councillors. TCDC Mayor Glenn Leach is open to the idea.

Having categorically ruled out the option of an 'all-Waikato unitary supercouncil' based in Hamilton, Leach led his council in a pre-Christmas vote to explore the potential benefits and financial implications of a unitary council for the district. TCDC has gained formal support for its action from one residents and ratepayers group.

But wait ... no sooner had Thames-Coromandel residents and councillors started on the unitary council path than WRC, apparently fearing the loss of its eastern rates mine, shot into action. First up, Whangamata.

Facing a full-fledged citizen revolt and civil disobedience over the frustrating saga to clear mangroves from Whangamata Harbour, WRC unexpectedly announced the start and speed-up of removal works.

After years of costly delays, Whangamata mangroves shot to top priority just in time for Christmas visitors, with WRC deputy chairman Simon Friar, who squeaked in at the 2010 election by a few hundred votes, ironically posing for a photo opportunity beside the long-awaited mulching machine.

The week before, WRC was touting the success and 40th anniversary of "its" Waihou Valley flood protection scheme. With quotes galore from regional council managers and councillors about benefits to the Thames Valley, the story failed to note the scheme was established nearly two decades before the former Environment Waikato council was created.

Then WRC PR staff opened the floodgates (figuratively) for the holiday season. Out of 16 press releases issued between January 4 and February 4, Coromandel projects headlined just under half.

A year earlier, the Coromandel had featured in four of 21 stories - two responding to criticism of the council, one defending its controversial stand on fish farm pollution and the other describing the costly, Keystone Cops struggle between WRC's own catchment and resource use departments in the mangrove debacle. Not much good news there.

But this summer, the Coromandel has been flavour of the month. Peninsula publications have received a steady stream of 'news' showing how hard and how well WRC is working for local ratepayers.

Whitianga boat safety and bar crossing seminars made separate headlines. Next subject was the narrow bridge and floodway at Graham's Creek in Tairua.

Two stories headlined a meeting with locals on bridge and stopbank upgrade plans, with the council eventually bowing to residents' preferences but reconfirming Tairua was in the budget pipeline for 2014-15.

Over on the peninsula's west coast at Te Puru, WRC announced a damage control meeting about rating options for flood protection works. With locals balking at WRC's proposal, council reps again backed off and sent the rating question back to headquarters for reconsideration.

Not discussed was the fact that millions of Coromandel flood control dollars, that could have funded the Te Puru works, were diverted at the request of WRC managers in recent years to controversial possum and goat control instead.

The WRC charm offensive is real. In October, council staff huddled at a Coromandel subcommittee meeting in Thames to discuss their public relations dilemma. According to meeting minutes, committee members cited the "need to push" and "highlight" council's "achievements" on the peninsula. They discussed the best way to use newspapers and agreed photos (like the hi-viz Simon Friar set-up) "are a good way of delivering messages".

But the Coromandel has fallen out of love with its regional council. And public relations blitz or not, it's likely they won't be coming back.

Geoffrey and Reihana Robinson are organic Coromandel farmers and ratepayers who take more than a passing interest in environmental issues and local politics. Their columns reflect their own opinions. To approve or disapprove of their opinions contact

(robinsonsreport@gmail.com).

- Hamilton News

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