Penny Bright has made herself an Auckland institution. She has been protesting against various actions of the council for longer than most citizens can remember. Her refusal to pay her rates since 2007 ceased to be amusing long ago. Many might criticise some of the ways the council spends the money, but unlike her they accept the obligation to pay their share.
Ms Bright's personal stand became even less amusing at news her long battle with the council has cost the rest of us not just the $33,372 she has accumulated in arrears, but an additional $104,000 in legal costs incurred by the council to defend a defamation claim she has brought against its chief executive, Stephen Town.
Mr Town, in a press release last year, had said she made certain accusations about the council as grounds for refusing to pay rates. She is asking a court to rule that his words damaged her reputation and wants $350,000 to compensate for the hurt and harm to her good name.
She finds it "outrageous" the council has spent so much on lawyers to resist her claim. She had written to Mr Town offering to settle for a retraction, an apology and payment of $10,000. She is right that it seems outrageous to spend so much on this case, but it would have been quite wrong of Mr Town to give her what she asked. She owes the ratepayers an apology for free-riding on the public services their rates are providing, and she owes them somewhat more than $10,000.
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Does the council really need to go to such expense defending an action such as this? Ms Bright has filed the papers personally and normally represents herself in court. Her strike rate against the former Auckland City Council was very good, getting off 21 of 22 trespass actions it brought against her.
But trespass, while a useful charge for removing intrusive protesters, is hard to prosecute. It requires proof of reasonable notice and the like.
Courts are easily persuaded to throw out charges against protesters knowing the charges have served their purpose long before coming to court. Surely the council could rely on a judge being similarly sensible when considering this defamation claim? Anyone engaged in public debate who has not been faced with various accusations must have a charming manner.
Ms Bright describes herself as a "full-time, self-funded public watchdog [and] whistle-blower". She sometimes adds "anti-corruption" to that resume. Corruption is a serious slur on any public body and that was the term that appears to have brought the response from Mr Town, who has not been running the Auckland Council very long. He will have discovered Ms Bright is impossible to satisfy and not necessarily always polite.
She refuses to pay her rates until the council gives her more details of its spending on contractors in the private sector. She has a right to pursue whatever she wants from the council, but not to withhold her dues.
Her free ride has gone on long enough. It has done far more damage to her than anything anyone could say.