Watchdog Penny Bright – making a difference

n the suburb of Kingsland in Auckland resides a 52 year old dynamo who embodies the axiom “I slept and dreamed that life was beauty.  I awoke — and found that life was duty.”  It is a short but fitting musing that comes to mind after 10 minutes with Penny Bright, the media spokesperson for the Water Pressure Group, a small but vocal public watchdog organization whose mission is to promote honest and accountable local government.  Particularly as it relates to water supply in the Auckland region.

It would seem that few people try to pack as much life into each day as Ms. Bright.  When she speaks you get the distinct sense that she is trying to squeeze the history of local governments and her fight into a single conversation.  Her expansive knowledge of local governmental protocol and the actual inner workings of government that often conflict with it is exceeded only by the speed by which she seeks to impart such knowledge.  She is notorious for her voluminous written submissions to public officials and the media alike.  Despite this propensity – or perhaps in part because of it – her passion is contagious.  Same too for her grounded faith and optimism that reveal none of the battle scars one might expect from a trench warrior who has spent the last 9 years of her life working to keep government and business honest.  And she does so without remuneration – or with few members of the public even recognizing the results and determined effort she puts forth each day.

Not that Ms. Bright is complaining.  She is quick to say that what she is doing is her choice and there is nothing else she would rather do.  She is equally quick to point out that she is not on a benefit as reported recently on a TV1 interview.  She exists on her own savings and the donations of private citizens, living a Spartan existence that is apparent to anyone seeing the dining room she has converted into an office; the mountains of paperwork leaving little room for anything but essential furniture and even less room to eat.

There is something unique and refreshing about Ms. Bright that belies her ‘media spokesperson’ status.  She is not a spin doctor, nor does she patronize her way to popularity.  Recently on the John Banks’ radio show, where she has been a regular contributor, the host (and former Auckland Mayor) asked if she would support a Banks’ candidacy over a Hubbard candidacy for Mayor of Auckland.  Although no fan of Dick Hubbard, who she considers to be a bully and ineffective Mayor, her response was hallmark candor, saying she thought the hosts’ skills were better suited to the radio program.

This same frankness can often make it difficult to achieve diplomatic gains with local public officials who are more accustomed to the genial yet subversive tactics that commonly determine local politics and public policy.  Not surprisingly, this has created a siege mentality on both sides of the debate, with Ms. Bright likening certain local politicians to feudal lords who are most interested in carving out their own fiefdoms with little regard for the public good.  She refers to her group as the ‘peasants’ and they have increasingly resorted to peaceful resistance to promote their aims.  Ms. Bright alone has been arrested a dozen times in the last two years, mostly for trespassing when refusing to leave Auckland City Council meetings after the Chairman ruled the Council was going into confidential session.  Because she wins or has the charges dropped each time she appears in Court, the ongoing toll on the police and courts has caused a shift in the attitude of the police toward responding to such trespass complaints from the Council.  Last year, she subpoenaed and cross-examined Mayor Hubbard at the Auckland District Court in a move that revealed the Mayor had little time for the protocol that should dictate the conduct of public officials and the convening of public meetings.

These are all minor victories that create a cumulative effect according to Ms. Bright, who believes that as she peels away the veneer that prevents transparent decision making, the result will invariably be more responsible decisions from local government.  Judging from recent successes, it appears she may have cause for confidence.  In May 2006, she refused to leave a Council meeting when the Chair of Metro Water Ltd. refused to discuss how much water rates were going to rise until the meeting went into confidential session.  Again she was arrested.  But the upshot of her protest was that Metro Water was later compelled to reveal that water rates were being hiked by 9.7%, largely to fund other city services.  It was disclosed that the monopoly water provider would have hiked rates only 3% but for the Councilors’ decision to milk extra money out of this essential commodity.  Two years earlier, her group exposed evidence that Metro Water Limited, which is wholly owned by Auckland City and governed by its Council, had misrepresented its water quality to the public, claiming that it was ‘Aa’ grade when in fact much of the water it supplied to the public was un-graded.  This was a rare instance where the Commerce Commission agreed with the Water Pressure Group’s stance that Metro Water knew, or should have known, that what it was doing violated fair trading practices.  Ms. Bright rightfully points out that the Commerce Commission has never taken the lead on the water quality issue, nor on allegations that Metro Water is overcharging, acting only as it has on complaints by the Water Pressure Group – and then only with considerable nudging.   Late last year she was successful in getting the Maori party to table a request for a Parliamentary inquiry into Metro Water’s charging and collection practices.

Despite such notable successes, the victories have been all too often few, far between and hard fought for.  Which makes one wonder how a volunteer who spends as much as 10 hours a day on such a thankless job stays motivated.  When asked what keeps her going, Ms. Bright’s answer is as challenging as it is telling.  “Who else is going to do it?  The official government watchdogs are not holding these people accountable.  Where is the media?”.