Random Play by Graham Reid

Alt.Nation: Sick of ham yet?

Controversy hit the small Northland town of Kakamoana this week after local residents learned their council had voted to replace traditional underground fire hydrants with the free-standing model as used in New York.

In a series of meeting late last year the council invited submissions on how to upgrade the town’s image. Among the submissions which won wide approval were those for removing graffiti, repainting the mural celebrating Anzac Biscuit Day on the side of the new Kiwi Bank, and replacing the native trees on Ocean Beach View Place with exotic cacti from Mexico.

However opponents to the hydrant replacement scheme believe that decision was hasty and the new-look yellow hydrants were out of keeping with the ambience of the town.

“These are the kinds of things I expect to see on NYPD Blue, but not in Kakamoana,” said motel owner and anti-hydrant campaigner Des Bevan yesterday.

“They will attract the unwelcome attention of dogs, and you can just bet that some local when he’s a few sheets to the wind coming home from the pub will run into one and severely injure himself.

"It‘s not bloody on and I‘ll do everything in my power to stop this happening, short of it costing me anything of course.”

Those supporting the scheme however have been equally vocal and see the hydrants as symbols of a new period in Kakamoana’s development and important in its bid for the 2008 Northland Shearing and Cake Bake-Off Competition.

“Kakamoana has long been seen as a slightly backward little town and this is just a small gesture towards big city sophistication,” said councillor Shirley Mahutu who initially voted for the plan, then changed her mind, then voted for it again.

“After the hydrants I’d like to think we would have a subway which could take tourists from the Placemakers on Kauri St direct to the wharf and the famous fish’n’chip shop there.”

Kakamoana mayor Dave Hunkin -- currently holidaying in Sydney -- acknowledged this week that the new hydrants were his idea which he brought to the council meeting last November.

Critics of the plan note that council by-laws expressly forbid small yellow objects being placed on main thoroughfares yet the council ignored objections on those grounds and employed a consultant who was charged with having the new hydrants in place by February 12.

That consultant, Doug Grew -- of Northland Hydrant Installation Co -- denied any conflict of interest on Monday then left town.

In a statement yesterday he said, “I was brought in to the consultancy process at the request of my brother-in-law Dave Hunkin and in good faith investigated the viability of the new type of hydrant.

“While I concede there is nothing actually wrong with the old hydrants, that was not what I was asked to comment on. I was asked if it were possible to replace them and I said it was. I then went ahead and bought 70 new hydrants.

“We will initially replace the five in the city and hold the others in storage as replacements.”

The cost of the 70 hydrants, believed to have been bought on E-bay from a Teamsters Union organiser in New York, is $157,000 which the council has already signed off from next year’s budget allocation.

Mayor Hunkin said yesterday that local iwi and the Kakamoana Businessmen’s Association -- of which he was chairman -- had applauded the scheme and the deal was effectively done. There could be no turning back because contracts had been signed.

But he added he was willing to listen to all sides of the argument now the issue had unfortunately become public.

“Initially we thought we could just get on and do this symbolically important job for people, but then some locals started asking questions. I was elected to lead and that is what I intend to do.

“But when I get back from holiday I am prepared to vacillate and be evasive, and probably even change my mind if that is necessary. I have done that before and am proud to say I will do it again.

“That is what being a visionary community leader is all about.”