It’s ‘blackmail’

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A former senior councillor threatens to sue Queenstown Lakes District Council over what he calls “semi-blackmail”. 

QLDC regulatory body Lakes Environmental is refusing to release a resource consent decision needed by self-employed builder Rick Pettit because he’s a few weeks overdue on a $2500 consent hearing bill. 

The little-known, new LE policy is part of a crackdown to minimise bad debts and improve cashflow. 

A fuming Pettit claims LE’s withholding of the decision – relating to his plans to split his eight-hectare Crown Range lifestyle block in two – is “putting me over a barrel”. 

On March 9, he says, he paid a $4700 deposit for a March 11 consent hearing. 

Three weeks later, on March 30, Pettit’s planner told him the consent decision was available but LE wouldn’t release it unless Pettit coughed up the balance of $2539.29. 

It had been invoiced by LE in February with a due date of  March 20. 

Pettit, who sat on QLDC between 2001-07 and chaired the finance committee, says the pay-up-or-get-lost demand felt like “unnecessary force”. 

“I was absolutely gob-smacked. In almost 40 years of business, I’ve never come across an approach so arrogant, heavyhanded and tantamount to blackmail,” he says. 

Without being a monopoly LE wouldn’t survive, Pettit says. “It’s the most disgraceful behaviour I’ve ever come across from a council-controlled organisation.” 

He has the money but he’s damned if he’ll pay under duress. “It’s basically a matter of principle.” 

And he still doesn’t know the consent verdict. “I’d obviously like to know – yes.” 

Mountain Scene tackled LE boss Hamish Dobbie. 

Akin to blackmail? “I just think it’s good business practice.” 

Quite tough? “Yes, it’s a reasonably tough policy.” 

Other complaints? “Yes.” 

The policy, in place for over a year, is fair because it’s disclosed up front, Dobbie says – “[applicants] sign something to that effect” and “we treat everybody on the same basis”. 

If people don’t pay in full each 20th, “we stop all activity on that account – and as soon as the account is cleared we resume activity”. 

Being a monopoly, Dobbie says, means LE can’t turn clients down like normal firms and must take on bad payers with the good. 

And being not-for-profit, it can’t absorb bad debts without hiking prices or getting QLDC subsidies – “neither of those is particularly palatable”. 

Pettit has the bit between his teeth – a complaint to the Ombudsman has been his first move. 

Adding injury to insult, he alleges, LE’s refusal to release his consent decision “completely overrides” his Resource Management Act rights – appeals must be filed within 15 days of the decision, Pettit believes.

“The period in which I have to appeal is no longer available because I haven’t been given a copy of the decision.”
So another tit-for-tat move has been to warn QLDC in writing that he’ll claim about $15,000 per month in “holding costs”. 

Are you serious about going QLDC? “Absolutely.” 

“This isn’t a story about Rick Pettit claiming his $15,000 or the fact he owes $2500. 

“This is a story about the fact a council-controlled organisation effectively owned by the community is screwing the community,” Pettit thunders. 

LE is the successor of CivicCorp, the hated, privately-owned regulatory contractor bought back by QLDC in 2007 to become a not-for-profit quango.