Council mayhem, health chaos & political showdowns

The Spinoff’s Justin Latif investigated the spread of new liquor stores across South Auckland for LDR – and community opposition inside and outside Auckland Council’s chambers. Photo / LDR / Justin Latif.

As Local Democracy Reporting begins a new chapter under NZ On Air's Public Interest Journalism Fund and the new leadership of David Reid and Conan Young, departing manager Nina Fowler and editor Natalie Akoorie take a look at some of the best stories and their impact since the project’s inception in October 2019.

A school that got a mobile dental clinic after 20 years of the principal fighting for reliable care, an investigation into who is able to access Sir Tim Shadbolt's emails and the council chief executive who resigned after being caught on camera ripping down protest posters.

Just three examples of the hundreds of stories being uncovered by Aotearoa's Local Democracy Reporters.

These reporters are helping to bring to light otherwise relatively unknown issues within their communities. The reporters are hosted, and employed, by local newsrooms around the country as part of a news-sharing service run by RNZ.

At the Gisborne Herald, Tairāwhiti LDR Alice Angeloni met Tolaga Bay Area School principal Nori Parata, who had been desperately seeking high-quality and consistent dental care for her students for two decades.

After Alice’s story was published Tairāwhiti DHB put a mobile dental clinic at the school to treat the 350 Year 9 to 13 students, some of whom hadn’t had any dental care for two years.

Other notable stories by Alice included exposing the low Covid-19 vaccination uptake among Gisborne's port workers, confirmed by the Maritime Union on RNZ’s Checkpoint that night as being a national problem, and that rural East Coast residents were losing job opportunities because of a five-week wait for driver licence testing.

Matthew Rosenberg took the time to sit down with Sir Tim Shadbolt when he took on the Southland LDR role in April 2021.

Allied Press’ Southland LDR Matthew Rosenberg has kept a close eye on the challenges facing Sir Tim Shadbolt (pictured). Photo / ODT / Stephen Jaquiery.

In one of his many stories capturing the dysfunction at the council, Matthew discovered an email the mayor had sent him was accessed by the council’s chief executive and used against Sir Tim in a meeting.

Matthew’s story led to the chief executive admitting the access and a $10,000 independent review of whether the council’s electronic communication policy was lawful and appropriate.

Matthew also broke stories on a health condition the mayor was suffering and Sir Tim’s use of council buildings to store personal items.

He also produced an array of feature stories, including the man who spent 30 years building a waka.

Former Wairarapa LDR Marcus Anselm reported that Masterton District Council chief executive Kath Ross had been caught on camera ripping down a publicity poster advertising a protest against a council proposal for a new civic centre.

She took up a special projects brief following the story and later left the job altogether.

Emily Ireland, who took over from Marcus in August, investigated a caveat in the South Wairarapa District Council’s code of conduct forbidding elected members from criticising council decisions and policy.

The council removed the controversial and outdated caveat in December.

When the Three Waters reform mandate was announced, Masterton councillor Tina Nixon went on record calling the government “a deceitful, lying pack of bastards”.

Emily inserted the quote into her coverage, and it was splashed by her editor on the front page of the Wairarapa Times-Age, with the paper held up in Parliament by National's Nicola Willis, to demonstrate the depth of feeling from some councils about the mandate.

In South Wairarapa the saga over an email exchange between a council chief executive and a councillor making derogatory comments about a community board chairwoman continues.

Rotorua LDR Felix Desmarais followed up a throwaway comment in a council meeting about bilingual road signs and through ongoing stories the issue gathered momentum .

It led to Transport Minister Michael Wood switching from non-committal language to travelling to Rotorua to announce exclusively to Felix he was committing to bilingual road signs by the end of the term.

A feature on the “black hole” of transparency followed a news story by Felix in which a member of the public expressed concern about closed-door council workshops. The feature questioned whether council meetings had become a rubber-stamping exercise after some decisions were all but made at public-excluded workshops. It proved a popular read.

Another story by Felix, on the government weighing up creating another MIQ facility in Rotorua, prompted strong public pressure, leading to a U-turn by Cabinet. His recent work also includes an investigative series into the creation of seven council deputy chief executives who went seven months without job descriptions. Felix has exposed the cost to ratepayers so far of $50,000 as well as two pay rises totalling about $28,000 per year.

Justin Latif, who alongside Stephen Forbes covers South Auckland, spent months researching and talking to members of the community for a story about gang violence in Ōtara.

The story delved into the deeper structural issues causing gang violence in the area and what within the system made Ōtara more susceptible to such violence. It was one of the few stories on the issue not solely focused on the crimes, but those working to stop young people joining gangs.

Justin also wrote about what South Aucklanders think of free school lunches , what it was like inside the Church of Sāmoa cluster of 332 Delta cases including one member’s raw account of the virus, and how difficult it is for communities to face off against the liquor industry over bottle store locations.

Mid Canterbury LDR Adam Burns, at the Ashburton Guardian, dug into serious allegations of physical and verbal abuse of vulnerable students made against a secondary school teacher.

The principal remained tight-lipped but an initial story prompted a statement that an investigation would be undertaken. It eventually cleared the teacher of wrongdoing, while Adam continues to follow up questions around who saw the investigation report, and the internal processes of schools.

The story about Ashburton’s odd town slogan took on a life of its own. The publicity led to a formal council review, but the consensus was that a slogan was simply a marketing gimmick. There is now wider discussion around how smaller rural towns sell themselves to the wider domestic market.

Former Marlborough LDR Chloe Ranford broke the news of a possible social housing rent hike with a story about worried pensioners, that generated a number of follow-ups.

These included pensioners being asked to leave a meeting, senior housing hardships laid bare, and calls for a tenant liaison, which led Chloe to the state of Blenheim’s Andrew Place flats and resulted in the council agreeing to fix the senior flats.

A tenant liaison was later added to the housing for seniors sub-committee at the council. Chloe’s reporting also resulted in an elevator being added to a block of council flats.

The Stratford District Council’s resistance to a Māori ward was covered by New Plymouth-based LDR Craig Ashworth, who is employed by iwi radio station Te Korimako o Taranaki.

The council decided last year not to consider a Māori ward until the 2025 election and would not back down despite being labelled racist by Ngāti Ruanui.

Three days later the mayor called an emergency meeting and councillors unanimously overturned the decision.

In October Craig reported the mounting frustration as iwi and Māori health providers struggled to raise Covid-19 vaccination rates in the region. Eight days after his reporting that direct funding was on the way, the government announced $120 million in grants for iwi and Māori providers, bypassing both the Ministry of Health and DHBs.

Moana Ellis of Whanganui’s Awa FM pursued a series of stories on the Māori electoral option before the government acknowledged the option would fail to provide Māori voters with meaningful choices in the 2022 local body elections – the first in which Māori wards are being widely introduced.

More than 250 people protest in Whanganui against the Covid-19 vaccination programme, forcing the prime minister to cancel her visits to clinics in the region. Photo / LDR / Moana Ellis.

Moana’s stories on Covid-19 vaccination for vulnerable Māori populations way back in April and May revealed Whanganui DHB’s pro-equity approach while coverage of iwi and iwi health providers pushing for earlier jabs for over 50s raised the need to address vaccine hesitancy.

Her first story for the content-sharing service, on the extent of everyday racism experienced by Māori, was widely picked up by media partners.

Former Eastern BOP LDR Charlotte Jones tackled similar issues in Whakatāne when she reported the treatment of a councillor after he performed a karakia at a Grey Power meeting.

The local Grey Power member later apologised for her offensive comments and a complaint to the Race Relations Commissioner was dropped.

Taking over the role at the Whakatāne Beacon in August, Diane McCarthy wasted no time following up an important issue Charlotte previously reported, about iwi objection to a subdivision on sacred burial land.

On the West Coast of the South Island, Lois Williams reported a rating error affecting 150 Buller properties with potential increases of up to 300 percent. The council eventually admitted the mistake and backed down.

She also doggedly pursued the government over its non-committal approach to a $24m fund it had promised to the tiny glacier town of Franz Josef to shore up flood walls. It eventually announced a scaled down version of the fund.

And a story about outdated X-ray machines at Grey Base Hospital revealed Coasters were having to undergo extra X-rays than necessary. The scrutiny contributed to the pressure on Fletcher Building to complete the new Te Nikau Grey Hospital.

Stephen Forbes has brought health issues to the fore in South Auckland. In an article about the impact of diabetes in the region, Stephen revealed a need for Pharmac to fund two drugs to treat the disease.

In late 2020 the drug buying agency agreed to fund the drugs for 53,000 people but a request by Stephen under the Official Information Act to Pharmac showed the agency knew there were 195,000 people in New Zealand with Type 2 diabetes who could potentially take the drugs.

Another article in June showed up to 140,000 people could miss out on the new drugs.

Pharmac said it would fund the drugs for anyone who qualifies for its special authority, despite a fixed budget but Stephen’s story in December showed delays in funding the drugs had led to needless deaths among Māori and Pasifika.

Stephen also brought attention to GPs facing burnout because of the increased workload from monitoring self-isolating Covid-19 patients.

In Northland, Susan Botting broke the story of residents frustrated at the noise made by Whangārei’s rescue helicopter. The story was picked up by most national media and the base is now moving from Kensington.

Susan also tackled a number of controversial and nationally significant stories including freedom camping, following an overhaul of Whangārei’s bylaw. She wrote a series of articles on the issue including what limits the council was considering, and a call for non-self-contained campers to be banned.

The outcome, and Susan’s coverage, was watched closely around the country.

The bylaw review happened at the same time as the government was looking closely at increasingly contentious freedom camping issues and potential legislative changes.

Andy Campbell at the King Country News was the first to report concerns about Ōtorohanga District Council's decision to change its sinking lid policy for pokie machines, to a "controlled increase in venues policy".

The story caught the attention of other media and put the spotlight on the council, which, after months of scrutiny and public consultation, backed down on the proposal that would have allowed it to consider new venues for the gaming machines.

The LDR team at a training week in Auckland in April. Back row from left to right; Marcus Anselm, Chloe Ranford, Adam Burns, Craig Ashworth, Susan Botting, Justin Latif, Moana Ellis, Andy Campbell. Front row: Charlotte Jones, Felix Desmarais, Natalie Akoorie, Alice Angeloni, Nina Fowler, Stephen Forbes. Photo / Stuff / Jason Dorday.

The project has also covered numerous important national issues since 2019, using both a local and nationwide lens. These include the country’s health reforms, Significant Natural Areas, Three Waters, the Future of Local Government Review, a major cyber attack on a district health board, Covid-19, and natural disasters.

Watch this space for more of the same in 2022.

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