By Conan Young , Local Democracy Reporting editor
This year was another huge one for Local Democracy Reporting, with our reporters at the forefront of uncovering some of the biggest stories in their regions.
Felix Desmarais in Rotorua exposed hitherto secret plans by the council to revoke the reserve status of seven council reserves, paving the way for new housing to be built on them, including social housing.
It became a major election issue with residents using the ballot to choose candidates opposed to the plan, which was subsequently canned by the new council.
Steve Forbes covered the chaos created by understaffed and overstretched Emergency Departments, with a deep dive in to the death of a patient who visited Middlemore Hospital.
He was first with a damning independent report that found the ED was “an unsafe environment for both patients and staff”.
It was a year of climate change-induced severe weather, and LDR reporters produced numerous stories on how councils were coping, or not, when it came to putting back together what Mother Nature had torn apart.
Flooding this year continued to represent an existential threat to Westport after the devastating inundation seen last year as well. Brendon McMahon’s stories have reflected the reality on the ground, such as the predicament faced by residents on Snodgrass Road who had been left out of a proposed flood protection scheme.
Nelson reporter Max Frethey has kept readers up to date as that city deals with its own clean-up after devastating downpours in August, which left the city with a repair bill of between $40 million and $60 million, the biggest in its 160-year history.
The weather kept Marlborough’s Maia Hart busy this year as well in a region with communities still cut off or with limited access due to damage caused a year ago.
But it was her story on the resilience of elderly Lochmara Bay resident Monyeen Wedge that really captured readers’ attention. Living alone, she went three days without power and was forced to live off canned food.
The pandemic and the response of health authorities and councils continued to be an area of inquiry for LDR in 2022, and none more so than Moana Ellis in Whanganui.
While high vaccination rates amongst pākehā protected thousands from the worst affects of the Omicron wave, it was a battle for DHBs to reach many Māori, who already had a distrust of health authorities. Moana’s reporting ensured these communities were not forgotten.
In one of LDR’s most read stories of 2022, Alisha Evans uncovered the extent of bureaucratic overreach in Tauranga when through traffic was discouraged on Links Ave with the help of a fine. A glitch led to infringements being issued to drivers living as far away as the South Island who had never even visited the city.
Reporters have documented the good and the bad of people’s interactions with vulnerable ecosystems. North Canterbury’s David Hill shone a light on the wonton destruction of endangered nesting birds in the region’s braided river beds by 4WD enthusiasts.
While Mother Nature was the winner following a series of stories from Taranaki’s Craig Ashworth on community efforts to protect dwindling stocks of kaimoana, which finally resulted in a two-year long rāhui.
The national roll out of flexible median barriers, aka “cheesecutters”, caused consternation in Whakatāne where Diane McCarthy talked to police who said they would struggle to pass drivers on their way to emergencies and farmers driving slow-moving tractors worried about extra levels of road rage from slowed-up motorists.
The dire state of the country’s water infrastructure is magnified in places like Wairarapa, with its small ratepayer base and decades old pipes and sewage treatment. There was no better illustration of this than Emily Ireland’s reporting on Masterton’s use of its Better Off funding where it was pointed out a mum was using a council provided portaloo to potty train her toddler because sewage was backing up in the town system whenever there was heavy rain.
The human impact of decisions around water infrastructure was also brought in to sharp relief in Ashburton reporter Jonathan Leask’s excellent reporting. He took up the cause of a couple and their three children who were shut out of moving in to their dream home due to high nitrate levels limiting the building of any more septic tanks.
One of the biggest changes around council tables this year was the election of Māori ward candidates, with half of all councils now having these. Northland’s Susan Botting has been first out of the blocks reporting on the new dynamics at play, starting with Kaipara mayor Craig Jepson’s ban on karakia to open meetings. The ban was hastily reversed, but led to the largest hikoi in Dargaville for some time.
As with all of LDR’s reporters, choosing just one stand out story from the many fine pieces published throughout the year is almost impossible. None more so than Tairāwhiti reporter Matthew Rosenberg.
But no wrap of 2022 would be complete without mention of his story on bulldozer driver Hamish Pryde. The 65-year-old helped save Wairoa from a dangerously high river by negotiating already badly flooded paddocks and opening up a sand bar so the river could drain out to sea.
As Matthew says, “not all heroes wear capes, some drive bulldozers”.
Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air. Asia Pacific Report is a partner in the project.