Maligned and misunderstood

2009-12-15 00:00

GIVEN that I am a public servant paid by the public, it would be inappropriate for me to engage in a battle of words via the media with members of the public. Therefore, I respond to recent letters and articles merely to, if necessary, put the record straight where people have misread or misinterpreted what I wrote, or, where they were misled by sensation-seeking headlines.

It is disappointing that despite undertaking to print as written, the article I titled “The current state of affairs in our municipality”, The Witness saw fit to change the front-page headline to a presumptuous “How to solve the city’s problems”. Predictably, this elicited several “the best solution is for you to resign” responses.

Then, The Witness saw fit to proclaim boldly that the municipal manager has “gagged” staff. This is a complete misinterpretation of the staff communiqué I circulated, in which I stated the following: “As custodians of public funds we have to be transparent and accountable, and we have internal procedures and audit resources to respond to any wrongdoing. This is not to hide or suppress the truth. On the contrary, we all have a duty, in terms of the Code of Conduct, to act.”

Is this a “gagging” order? The misleading headline and selective quoting prompted a lengthy article based on the assumption that I am ignorant of other laws, and indeed our Constitution. A single telephone call would have corrected any misinterpretation, and I might add that we will establish an independent whistle-blower facility next year.

The same writer accuses me of not regularly informing the public about municipal affairs. In fact, I present a monthly report to an advertised public meeting of the council, but good news is seldom reported. For instance, the fact that at November’s meeting I reported that I awarded a security contract amounting to some R2 million less than that recommended by the Bid Evaluation Committee, was not considered newsworthy. In an endeavour to better inform our residents, the municipality is almost obliged to publish its own newspaper, uMpithi News.

Since 1995, all of our committee meetings have been open to the public to promote participatory democracy, and I have recently reminded the council that it may not exclude the public or the media from any meeting without providing the reasons therefore. Furthermore, in terms of Section 20(2) of the Municipal Systems Act, council may not exclude the public, including the media, when considering major issues, such as the budget, IDP and by-laws.

Several other letter writers have questioned the need for bodyguards for our political office bearers. I can only repeat that the intelligence information supplied to me sadly but clearly indicates the need. In my own case, I was advised to have security on a 24-hour basis, but after a few weeks I reduced this to working hours only, therefore no overtime is incurred. Disappointingly, neither The Witness nor any letter writer found it alarming that the safety, if not the life, of the municipal manager is at risk. I abhor threats and intimidation, and will institute charges whenever necessary.

Now I am challenged to respond to if and why a hired vehicle is used by my bodyguard, “notwithstanding that he already has a vehicle that is subsidised by us”. Yes, a hired VW Polo was used because the municipal fleet does not have suitable vehicles and it is cheaper in the short term to hire rather than purchase. My private vehicle is just that: the monthly instalments are paid for entirely by me. I can only claim for travel on official municipal business, which is authorised by the mayor and subject to taxation. Since the writer has seen fit to compromise my security by describing the security vehicle, I have dispensed with it.

The same writer accused me of “running with the the hares and hunting with the hounds”. Given that our municipalities require the manager to manage the relationship among the councillors, the staff and the communities, a great deal of running in order to promote some semblance of harmony, let alone unity, in an increasingly divided council is certainly required of me in our situation.

Despite threats and uncalled for derogatory public comments by councillors, I will continue to endeavour to do my best for the residents — all the residents — of our city, as I have tried to do for the past 25 years. I am encouraged by the many respected people who have urged me to continue, and by the fact that councillor K. Olivier, a Democratic Alliance councillor who commands respect, wrote that he agreed with almost everything I highlighted. Correctly, he pointed to the need for solutions, and clearly his party should contribute in that regard.

Although we have made some improvements in our electricity, water and sewerage networks, I must agree with the many writers who point to the glaring need to clean up our city, especially the centre area. We, and that means all of us, have to reclaim it for what it is: an area richer in character and heritage than any other South African city. However, it will require a concerted programme, which addresses the causes not just the symptoms.

Fundamentally, our central area is being overrun by both people and vehicles. Many office blocks are now residential blocks and many previous single-family homes are now crowded boarding houses. Our central streets are gridlocked almost on a daily basis. Although the area is cleaned during the night it is littered again by midday.

The solution clearly requires us in the medium to long term to create other centres of employment, such that all roads do not lead to the CBD. Edendale needs a shopping centre, a library and a swimming pool — to name but three items — if we are to reduce the need to come to town.

The municipality, with the assistance of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business, hopes to facilitate the establishment of central improvement districts, in which the property owners assist in funding additional cleaning services. Coupled with more stringent notification and enforcement of planning regulations and by-laws, this will certainly help, but ultimately the inculcation of civic pride, a feeling of belonging and a sense of place are required. Let me assure everyone that we intend to launch an intensive cleanup early in 2010.

As always, constructive input is welcome, whereas personal attacks are not helpful.

Finally, I am pleased to report that my offer to meet the Msunduzi Rates Forum “anywhere, anytime” did not fall on deaf ears, and we will be meeting soon. In response to a request by the forum, I have waived the fee for obtaining information for pensioners and indigents. If this is misconstrued as running and hunting, so be it.



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