Communication breakdown

Have the Dunedin City Council and senior police officers stopped talking to each other?

After last Tuesday night's public relations disaster when the council failed in its attempt to have trespassed protesters removed from the Octagon, the residents of Dunedin could well be forgiven for thinking sensible communication has ceased. The "Occupy Dunedin" protesters - some call them noble and brave and others bludgers and beneficiaries - pitched more than 30 tents in the upper Octagon on October 15, joining a global movement protesting corporate greed and social inequality and calling for greater protection of the environment. From day one council staff said they were illegally camped and breaching two bylaws - the reserves bylaw and the camping control bylaw.

On day two, senior council staff member Mick Reece said the council planned to request police help to remove the protesters, who were refusing to budge. The council's sternly-worded trespass notice was issued on day 18. Leave by 8pm or else. Or else what?

The protesters rustled up a crowd of more than 200 people.

And no police in sight. Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull expressed his surprise the police had not evicted the protesters. Chief executive Paul Orders has maintained that line since, saying the council's position is clear - the onus is on the police to enforce council bylaws. Unfortunately, it seems no-one from the council checked to make sure the police had the same view. Dunedin-Clutha area commander Inspector Greg Sparrow says the police have to consider competing interests and consider their legal position before deciding whether to act.

In 2002, in the era of mayors Sukhi Turner and later Peter Chin, council chief executive Jim Harland and city police chief Inspector Dave Campbell - all of whom since vacated their positions - the council and the police established a leaders' forum to try to reduce crime and improve safety in the central city and North Dunedin areas. It met regularly for years. One wonders if it still exists. If it does not, last week's events show it should be resurrected post-haste. Full and frank discussions between the council and the police before the trespass notice was issued - whether those discussions were formal or informal - would surely have averted the embarrassment for the council. The protesters have won a significant victory and it will be even more difficult to move them now. They appear to hold all the cards, evidenced by the council's bizarre compromise offer of allowing an information stand and one "symbolic" tent to remain. Either tents in the upper Octagon are illegal or they are not.

The council appears to want a bob each way.

The police's reluctance to act on the trespass order raises an interesting question. If they take no action against breaches of the reserves and camping control bylaws, might they also hold back on enforcing breaches of other bylaws?

There are 20 bylaws listed on the council website. They prescribe the rules on everything from keeping animals or birds in residential backyards to where motorists can legally park. The police regularly arrest and prosecute people seen drinking in parts of the city covered by permanent or temporary liquor bans.

They have the power to issue parking tickets, and tickets for motorists caught speeding on roads covered by the council's speed limit bylaw.

Why the inconsistency?

If the police are prepared to leave the protesters be, some may argue they should leave motorists alone too. However, the solution to evicting the Occupy Dunedin group may be within the council's own powers. Its Consolidated Bylaw of 2008, which it states is to be read in conjunction with all other bylaws, makes it clear who can enforce bylaw breaches: "... all actions required to be done by the council under this bylaw may be undertaken by any officer or employee or agent of the council to whom the authority for undertaking such action has been lawfully delegated".

So if the police will not act, perhaps the council should send in its own officers, employees or agents - security officers perhaps - to do the job instead. Or the protesters could take the hint.

They have made their point. It is now day 26 - time for them to pack up and go home.


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