Otago Area Council communication failures ‘in another league’, report says

A critical report painted a bleak picture of Otago Regional Council, saying the relationship between the former chief executive and elected officials appeared “badly broken, even broken”.

The Clutha-Mata Au River at Balclutha.
Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

The report, released today, details how dangerous rubble was dumped into the Clutha-Mata Au River in March 2021.

Sir Graham Panckhurst QC explored the sequence of events leading up to and following the event, including why it took three months for the materials to be removed from the river.

The retired High Court judge criticized the council’s judgment and process.

Andrew Haulage 2011 Limited, based in Balclutha, dumped the contaminated material into the river adjacent to the company’s yard to prevent further erosion of the bank.

Andrew Haulage chief executive Colin Calteaux claimed he ordered the work to be carried out after speaking to two engineers from the Otago Regional Council, who approved it.

This put the board in a bind, as normally its engineering department would oversee the correction of such a breach, but it felt there was a conflict of interest.

Similarly, the council’s compliance department felt they were conflicted in investigating the issue due to another department’s involvement.

The Environmental Protection Authority has been asked to investigate.

This led to a near freeze in the material removal process, which should have been corrected immediately.

This meant the material sat in the river for 95 days, a period described as “simply unacceptable” by Sir Graham.

Council engineers never testified to the Environmental Protection Authority and eventually received letters of warning and education as Calteaux’s version of events went unchallenged, despite questions about its veracity.

The council’s then chief executive, Sarah Gardner, only told councilors about the seriousness of the situation in July last year, four months after the materials were dumped in the river.

Sir Graham said it was inexplicable.

“The failure of communication and the lack of transparency is of another order,” he said.

“Good communication between staff and the EC (Chief Executive), as well as the EC and the advisers, is crucial in an organization of this size and type. Communication between staff and the EC has taken place, but the blockage between the EC and the councilors was inexplicable. Such failure cannot be blamed on error, rather than the relationship between the EC and, the president and the councillors, was unhealthy, if not broken.”

He called for action.

“Action is needed on communication and transparency. Unfortunately, the issues exposed in July 2021 in relation to the Clutha River incident are not unique,” he said.

“Respondents during the survey commented on the existence of a disconnect between staff and advisers. Essentially, it seems the problem is that staff believe that advisers are not sticking to their role strategic direction and policy; and if performance monitoring, advisors do not treat staff with respect.

“Councillors, however, view staff as seeking to influence strategy and policy; and when it comes to communication, they are only told what staff want them to know. If these perceptions turn out to be correct, there are fundamental issues with leadership and culture.”

Gardner resigned as chief executive last month.

She had overseen a difficult tenure in which former Labor and Environment Minister Marian Hobbs was ousted as chairwoman and then resigned, along with councilors who opposed tariffs, the water and Maori partnership.

In response to the report, the council said the report “speaks for itself”.

The board was delighted to receive the independent report and understand what happened and why, according to a statement.

“The investigation was about process and procedures, not people.”

Chairman Andrew Noone said he and acting chief executive Dr Pim Borren were aligned and fully supportive of the report’s findings.

“There are lessons learned for everyone, and I am pleased that changes have been implemented in line with Sir Graham Panckhurst’s findings and recommendations.”

Elna M. Lemons