Lawyers to shed light on legality of City’s power cuts

2019-03-14 14:36
Gavel and scales

Gavel and scales

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More than a year after embarking on its controversial electricity disconnections drive, the City is finally getting its legal team to interpret its bylaws to determine the legality of its actions.

This was recently revealed by acting municipal manager Neli Ngcobo following a meeting with the attorneys of the Hilton Ratepayers Association (HRA) — which threatened to take Msunduzi to court over the disconnections.

The HRA challenged the legality of most of Msunduzi’s disconnections, which allegedly flouted the City’s own by-laws.

The organisation mandated a Pietermaritzburg law firm Tatham Wilkes Inc to engage the City on its members’ behalf.

Ngcobo said during the recent meeting the parties discussed the interpretation of the bylaw, which was “found to be a challenge”.

“We must first get our legal [unit] — which was present at the meeting — to look at the bylaw and interpret it for the municipality so that we make some changes if there is a need,” she said.

Ngcobo was responding to comments by DA councillor Ross Strachan who warned council that the municipality was inviting a big lawsuit over the unjust and incorrect power cuts.

In an article in The Witness published on February 2018, residents expressed their outrage at hundreds of electricity meters being disconnected in a single weekend without warning.

Some said they were on prepaid electricity but nonetheless were disconnected. In that article the City said the disconnections were part of a programme that had started in September 2017.

Although the exact figures were not immediately available on Wednesday as to how many disconnections have been carried out since, the drive has been ongoing and has targeted residential, business and government departments that are alleged to be in arrears.

Strachan said at the meeting that he understood the reasons that Msunduzi had embarked on the extensive disconnections campaign.

This had to do with the City’s multi-billion rand debtors book as some consumers were not paying for services and that compromised the municipality’s finances. “But we’ve got a lawsuit waiting to happen and it’s going to be a big lawsuit,” warned Strachan.

‘Some contractors break laws’

Strachan said some of the contractors who were employed to carry out the disconnections were not abiding by the law.

He said there were constant complaints about how they forcefully entered people’s properties when they needed to access the electricity meters.

“They are breaking and entering. They are trespassing into properties without any authority from the SAPS. They could be anyone from the street — they don’t present any identification proving who they are,” said Strachan.

He said sometimes the contractors also cut off the wrong properties and sometimes people were incorrectly disconnected — which was unfair to those affected.

The HRA said the municipality had a right to effect legal disconnections but of late some people were being unjustly cut off.

The Witness previously reported that power cuts without prior notice having been issued to property owners were procedurally unfair and in violation of consumers’ constitutional rights.

However, Msunduzi maintained that their disconnections were within the confines of the law as notices were printed at the bottom of the utility bill.

Some of the HRA members who had been cut off were reportedly later found to be up to date with their payments.

There have also been reports that sometimes consumers were given a “notice” by the contractors who came to disconnect their power supply.

HRA also had Tatham Wilkes Inc compile a circular on Msunduzi’s right to disconnect electricity supply to residential customers, which was distributed to its members last month.

It states that the City’s right to disconnect supply was subject to several requirements, including giving reasonable opportunity to the consumer to make representations in respect of the intended disconnection.

The document further explains that the municipality or its contractors had the right, in terms of both the bylaws and the Municipal Systems Act, to access the property and the consumer may not obstruct such access, for the purposes of effecting a legal disconnection.

Scottsville councillor Vic Winterbach asked if it would not be better for Msunduzi to place a moratorium on the disconnections considering that clarity was still being sought on the interpretation of the bylaw that governs them.

Ngcobo appealed to the councillors to allow the legal department to provide the interpretation of the bylaw before making any decision on the matter.

She said that should be in a month’s time.

“The priority here — that all the councillors should understand — [is that] our budgets in terms of the municipality are based on the [revenue] collections.

“So I’m really not understanding when you say let’s put a moratorium. What are we saying because we haven’t even seen the interpretation of the bylaw?” she said.

 

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  msunduzi municipality
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