ACCOUNTABILITY IN THE HOOD

Martin Meyer, 39, is a kind, empathetic chap with degrees in theology who is often spotted walking around in my hood:  Morningside.

He is a social worker at a Durban hospital and the councilor for the city’s Ward 27.

Bordered by Sydenham Road, North Ridge Road, the Umgeni River and the beachfront up to SunCoast, this is home to key businesses and important business people.

Meyer was elected with a majority of 77% in his ward of 15 000 voters.

After his re-election in August for another five-year term, I asked him what his priorities were.

I want to hold Meyer to his promises and encourage others to have a similar engagement with their elected representatives in the interests of firming up the social contract.

His priorities for his term are around:

 

  1. Derelict buildings
  2. Vagrancy
  3. Infrastructure
  4. Town planning
  5. Community activism

 

Here’s what Meyer plans to do in response to these issues:

  1. Some buildings have been derelict for between five and 10 years.  Owners allowing their buildings to fall into neglect (often while scheming to turn residences into commercial buildings) must pay five times the normal rates as a penalty. But is the city following through with this penalty? Martin’s concerned they aren’t. “I’m trying to get the city to confiscate buildings that are neglected. In Cape Town, they have done this, although there are legal issues. Some of the buildings can’t be demolished because they are protected by heritage agency Amafa. Until we can respond quickly to this problem, I think we should picket neglected buildings or shame the owners for letting their neighbours down. Derelict buildings can be like a virus. The problem spreads and this devalues neighbourhoods and erodes the city’s rates base and threatens our revenue on top of creating havoc for residents.”
  1. Vagrancy, Meyer says, is not a law enforcement issue. It is a social issue. He says it is illegal for people to beg and weave through traffic at the robots. But arresting them for such pettiness just puts a strain on the already burdened judicial system. Municipal courts might better deal with bylaw infringement and they should be reintroduced. However, the problem is deeper. “Vagrancy has been around for 5000 years. We can’t solve it, but we can manage it. We need a drop in centre or mobile clinics for homeless people, a place where they can shower, get a change of clothes and minor medical care. Many people come to the city because they’re starving in the countryside. We need to get our heads around solutions that offer them piecemeal jobs that get them on the ladder to looking after themselves. There are some chancers out there but, for some people, the problems are just overwhelming. We also need more decent public facilities like clean and safe toilets. I don’t know how many toilets there are in my ward, but there clearly aren’t enough.”
  1. Infrastructure has to be upgraded in Morningside. Meyer says it is 80 years old. Water and sewage pipes and roads weren’t meant for the volumes of today and simply can’t cope. “We need to establish what the critical priorities are, share that information with residents and then work systematically down the list. And we ought to be encouraging people by way of financial incentives to install Jojo tanks and solar panels to reduce their reliance on the city infrastructure that is creaking under the load. We also could refine municipal bureaucracy so that council workers can be more responsive to complaints around flagging infrastructure.
  1. Town planning, Meyer says, is changing for the better because less politicians are involved. But critical issues need resolution to avoid blights on the landscape – like the monster in Currie Road that is the subject of litigation. “You can’t stop densification, but we must be able to control it fairly”. This is a huge issue bigger than one councilor and even if he or she is monumentally committed, the only likely solution in the short term is to popularize every major town planning application and ensure as much probity as possible to avoid corruption and bad management.
  1. Meyer believes in community activism. He’s promised to do his best to stimulate this spirit in Ward 27. It will help him be sharper and more representative. Expect events at community sports clubs, flea markets, gigs in the park and a range of activities that connect neighbours and help them express what they want out of their councilor and the municipality.

When Meyer is not at the hospital or at interminably long council meetings or inspecting wonky pavements, he’s returning calls.

In my experience he’s a generally responsive councilor. He’s not lightning fast getting back to you, but he’s probably stretched and he’ll respond if you pester him. In fact, he prefers email (ward27@ethekwini.org) because it is a record of issues.

I suggested he employ an assistant to take calls at a constituency office.

He’s keen to do so and has set up office in Windermere Road.

Meyer is a Democratic Alliance member and he and fellow DA councilors on the Berea are also chipping in to employ a shared assistant to log calls from people who don’t have access to email.

Mind you, being responsive to the 28 000 in his constituency is not easy. But he doesn’t mind if you bug him.

That’s his job, though he says the municipal system is designed so councilors aren’t the first port of call for complaints.

Still, you contribute to Meyer’s R42 000 a month salary and he says he’s more successful resolving problems by playing an oversight role over council officials.

So, call the city on 031-311111 first and, if you don’t get any joy from eThekwini departments like water, solid waste, or electricity, he will jump on their heads.

“It’s not fair to complain or escalate things if officials haven’t had a chance to fix the problem,” he says.

Things can get busy. Recently, in just one week, there were 36 burst water pipes burst in Ward 27.

To keep in touch with his constituents, Meyer wants to host two street meetings a month and two bigger meetings twice a year. He also regularly posts on Facebook.