OPINION: Way back when the ancient Greeks first tried democracy in the city of Athens, only landowners were allowed to vote. If the city were threatened by an army, epidemic, or drought, merchants and workers could pack up and leave without losing anything. Landowners were more likely to stay and fight or struggle through the troubled times. Their fates were bound with the city and it was hoped that they would act with the city's best interest at heart.
That hope didn't last long. Athens soon became divided into two factions that tried to buy the votes of other landowners. Twenty-six centuries later, New Zealand's national politics are still dominated by this two-party system, despite MMP.
The landowners are now ratepayers, but all residents over 18 get to vote because those who rent help cover rates. It's your money, so you get a voice.
Athens did not have a council. All landowners voted on every issue. The votes took place in the agora (town square), and if you weren't there, you weren't counted. This was a problem for those who needed to do the real work of running the city, because sitting around the agora listening to boring speeches took too much time.
Our representative democracy means only the elected councillors have to make and listen to boring speeches while the rest of us can work to pay for it. We're lucky that we still have a functioning fourth estate (ie, professional media companies) that send reporters to cover at least the larger council meetings - and many of the smaller ones. These professionals sift through the dross and write readable stories on the main issues to keep their readers informed.
The downside of this system is that many people aren't reading those newspaper reports regularly enough and don't always know what is going on. While we still get one vote every three years, quite a few voters have little idea as to who is making good decisions and who isn't. All we get is an ever-increasing bill for rates on the same piece of land or our rent goes up, yet the house hasn't got bigger.
And it seems as individuals that we can't do anything about it. The Hamilton Residents and Ratepayers Association Inc is a group of people who want the best for our city. Hamilton is a great place to live and work, and we want it to get better. None of us has the time to keep up with everything the council does, but as a group, we can share the tasks and keep each other informed.
We are worried about council spending.
We are not anti-growth. We are not anti-debt (if it is a good investment). We simply want value for money.
The rates rises are hurting people. Council estimates the number of ratepayers unable to meet their rates will quadruple. This is programmed poverty. It doesn't even include the effect on renters.
Is it worth it? Is the money being spent wisely? These questions should be easy to answer. The information should be easily available – because we, the residents, have already paid for it.
Unfortunately, it is not easy, especially for some elderly who lack the computer skills to read all the Waikato Times' historic and current coverage of the city council. We are concerned about a lack of transparency. Individuals would probably give up, but as a group we can work harder to get the facts.
Over the coming weeks, we will discuss the issues that are worrying residents. We will invite councillors and staff from both Hamilton City Council and Waikato Regional Council to respond and open up a dialogue. There is a lot of frustration and anger in the community and we believe better communication with explanations in everyday language will help all of us understand it.
If we have misunderstood, then it should ease the anger. If we have been misunderstood, then council will understand why we are angry. If this is the case, we are willing to work with council on solutions.
We believe people have a right to expect accountability, integrity, and transparency in a democracy. Anyone who is afraid of these should not be involved in councils. We will keep demanding these rights and will not be satisfied until we get them.
If you are interested in what is really going on, we welcome you to our meetings and look forward to your joining the association. We are not affiliated with any political party. All we want is for your voice to be heard.
A new website is under construction. In the meantime, use our facebook page, hamiltonratepayers, to contact us and find more information.
* Andrew Bydder is a Hamilton architect and spokesman for the Hamilton Residents and Ratepayers Association Inc.