Control of alcohol sales in west Auckland looks set to become a battleground at October's local elections.
The group campaigning for an end to the licensing trusts' grip on pub and bottle shop licences is "working to find candidates who support giving west Aucklanders the chance to vote on the monopoly and improving transparency".
"We're hopeful that everyone in west Auckland will have the chance to vote for someone who supports letting west Auckland choose," said Waltag spokesman Nick Smale.
"We're still holding discussions with some candidates but hope to make an announcement before final candidate lists are announced on August 21."
Waltag — the West Auckland Licensing Trusts Action Group — wanted a referendum on the trusts at the election but couldn't get enough support to trigger a vote before the June 14 deadline.
That prompted a swipe in the statement by Waitakere trust president Linda Cooper and Portage trust president Ross Clow in the trusts' combined annual report.
"This year we have seen the launch of a petition aiming to end our community-given mandate to manage alcohol sales in the West Auckland area. At the time of writing, it had yet to be presented, despite a year of campaigning."
The trusts' headline figures for the 2018/19 financial year were a $7.2 million post-tax profit, which includes sale of property, on operation revenue of $117.9m, with $2.5m returned to the community. The latter figure is forecast to rise to $3.5m and $5m in the following two 12-month periods. The remainder of the profit is invested.
Smale says the increase in profit returned is "due to the pressure Waltag has put on them through the petition (or an uncanny coincidence)".
The key arguments
Certainly, the presidents' statement and a message from trusts chief executive Simon Wickham and chairman Brian Corban could be read as retorts to Waltag. Multiple criticisms, including the lack of a full list of grant recipients in previous annual reports, are addressed at length.
"While some may describe the idea of trusts as old-fashioned," write Wickham and Corban, "there is nothing out of date about a community wanting to see alcohol sold responsibly. Indeed, there are many communities which would like to see the same level of responsibility being taken in their own area, having seen that in West Auckland there are no compromises and many benefits."
In broad terms, Waltag believes the trusts' monopoly on tavern (pub) licences restricts the number and quality of outlets in their patch.
They also oppose the monopoly on off-licences, which stops beer and wine being sold in supermarkets; claim the trusts aren't transparent enough; and question the amount returned to the community.
"Giving back", as the trusts' slogan has it, is a keystone of their model. Instead of going to big alcohol companies, profit is redistributed where it's generated via grants and other initiatives. The trusts also argue their control of off-licences checks the spread of bottle stores, minimising alcohol-related harm.
Wickham said the trusts "weren't surprised" Waltag's petition wasn't lodged but "never take community support for granted".
Smale said the group was pressing on with signature collection after "a bit of break" and hoping to submit the petition for a referendum in the Waitakere trust area in the next couple of months.
"We already have more than the target number of signatures but we need to be certain enough are valid — eg some signatories are not enrolled to vote and so their signatures won't count.
"If we submit the petition and it comes up short, then we'd be back at square one. We need to be sure."
Transparency and pay: New criticisms
The release of the annual report prompted further criticism from Waltag.
Smale said they were "really critical" of the trusts' "refusal" to publish it ahead of the trusts' separate annual meetings two weeks ago and has complained to the Ombudsman.
The Local Government Official Information and Meeting Act (LGOIMA) is "unequivocal that the reports should be publicly available at least two working days before the meeting. It seems they were just trying to avoid some potentially awkward questions."
Wickham said their annual meeting processes are governed by the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012, not LGOIMA, a point explained to Waltag "more than once".
"The annual report must be formally reviewed and approved by each trust at the AGM before it is released to the public ... but we welcome questions or discussions on it anytime so this doesn't preclude any discussion at upcoming meetings which always have a public open session."
Waltag also raised the disparity between staff wages and payments for directors.
According to Smale, Waitakere trust members told their annual meeting that staff started on 50c above the $17.70 minimum wage. Moving everyone to the voluntary Living Wage — $21.15 an hour — would cost more than $1 million a year and research showed the public would rather the trusts spend money on community initiatives, like the free first aid kits distributed this year.
Waltag pointed to the 25 per cent increase in remuneration for trust directors approved in July 2018 that took the annual total from $330,000 to $412,000.
Trusts services, the back-end entity that handles operations, has nine directors — five independents and two members of each trust.
Portage Licensing Trust member Sandra Coney said last year her annual director payment was $27,000. Assuming each of the four elected members get the same, that leaves $304,000 split between the five independents.
Wickham said investment in people went far beyond the hourly rate and included extensive training and development, paid domestic violence leave, subsidised health insurance and gym memberships.
"We are comfortable with our remuneration levels as one part of a much bigger question of how we support our team. Our elected members have considered the Living Wage twice and chose not to adopt it given the significant cost impact it would have.
"All remuneration, including that of the board, is reviewed and benchmarked by an external remuneration provider to make sure we pay people fairly for the work they do.
"Our director fee levels are below the amount recommended by this provider, but at a level that enables us to attract the right level of talent and reward people fairly for the responsibility they take on."