2014-06-20 00:00

A COMMUNICATION crisis is developing fast between Durban and its ­ratepayers.

This week, a number of civic associations and opposition parties alleged that “the city has stopped listening to us — they just do what they want” — and warned that the demise of ratepayer associations, including the closure of the Combined Ratepayers Association this week, would likely worsen the communications divide.

Yesterday, a proposal for a new “zero parking” public housing model for Durban was rubber-stamped in committee, after officials quickly dispensed with the formal objections of 14 residents — who warned it would lead to student hostels in suburbs.

And eThekwini also revealed plans to replace this town planning committee with a “professional body” this year — getting rid of all elected councillors — in order to fast-track development.

DA Exco member Heinz de Boer said, “It’s as if proposals are advertised and objections are taken just to tick the box for the requirement for public participation, and are then ignored.”

This week, residents who objected to new developments in Essenwood and Chatsworth were shocked to learn from Witness reporters that their extensive written complaints were ignored. Over 260 pages of objections to an apartment building proposal in residential Berea were summarised in two minutes by city officials — who dismissed them as a ­desire to “preserve the Berea of 80 years ago” — while written objections to an illegal and unstable church structure were reduced to a few paragraphs on the agenda, and ignored in committee.

Jeeva Pillay, president of one of the few remaining ratepayers groups — the Tongaat Civic Association — said ratepayers were partly to blame, “having given up”, but that engagement from the city “is mostly now with residents, rather than ratepayers”.

“Yes, the city is reaching out to the majority, but it is not listening to the people who actually pay for all of its services — who are only about 20% of residents,” said Pillay. “Some of its initiatives are good ones, but they are still doing whatever they like with our money. The municipality claims to engage with us, but it presents its budget for so-called consultation in stadiums where questions cannot be asked, and in areas where it knows other race groups won’t be represented — like Umlazi and kwaMashu.”

• Town planning committee member Geoff Pullan said residents’ ideas — which have led to success stories, such as the safer beachfront and the R102 road access to King Shaka International — were now “routinely ignored”.

Most of these related to traffic calming humps and traffic circles, but also pre-paid electricity meters for informal settlements and Priority Zone “green

T-shirt” security guards for suburbs;

•All residents whose electrical appliances have been destroyed by theft-related municipal power surges have had their detailed claims for compensation rejected by eThekwini Electricity, without being considered. This is despite a law and a recent Public Protector ruling that support claims;

•Daryl Mann, who represents operators at Virginia Airport, said his repeated offers to council to explain aviation issues affecting the possible relocation of the city airport had been ignored. Mann claimed mis-communication had triggered a fourth “ridiculous and pointless” feasibility study “at a cost of millions to ratepayers”;

•The Save Our Berea campaign has had to resort to a Promotion of Access to ­Information Act demand for standard public documents relating to the construction at 340 Stephen Dlamini Road “as the city officials concerned have refused to co-operate with us or give us information we requested”. The city’s eventual reply this week was two weeks beyond the legal deadline;

•All civic organisations contacted reported that meetings with key officials were “much more difficult” now than under past administrations.

The Witness itself was granted an extended meeting with eThekwini’s efficient communications director, Tozi Mthethwa — but has yet to receive even a requested meet-and-greet with the city manager after three weeks, and had to wait over two months for an interview with eThekwini Electricity’s risk manager.

Former eThekwini city manager Mike Sutcliffe would not be drawn on the current engagement concerns, but said: “in general, engagement with ratepayers is critical. During my time in the municipality, I learnt [from residents] every day. And if any city won’t come back with ­answers, use the president’s hotline.”

The KZN chairperson of commercial ratepayer body Sapoa, Edwin van Niekerk, said eThekwini was responsive to commercial input, “It is not a brick wall situation for us — in fact, the city is rolling out some great strategies”.

Cheryl Johnson, chairperson of the Save Our Berea campaign, said the organisation was launched “because the city ignored me as a ratepayer, and then people started telling me how their letters and complaints had been ignored for years”.

Although city manager Sibusiso Sithole did not show up to address a major campaign meeting, Johnson said the city’s head architect had attended — “and he’s kept to the promises he made there.”

“It shows you the good things that happen when there is engagement.”

Describing the recent closure of at least three ratepayer bodies including her own, Lilian Develing, head of the now ­defunct Combined Ratepayers Association, said “Durban is now in a post-ratepayers association era — ratepayers have lost their voice. Officials have often said they will only deal with ratepayer associations on issues — so what will become of those issues now?”

Jeeva Pillay said he planned to rally ratepayers north of Durban — including those in Umhlanga and La Lucia — to a new combined forum: “We have to get the message out that if the city won’t listen to us, then we won’t pay them”.

One eThekwini official denied the claims, saying public objections were read and considered by officials, and that eThekwini abided by — and went beyond — requirements for public consultation.

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