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Gary Kelliher
Gary Kelliher
An Otago regional councillor says he is astounded by the hefty price ratepayers have paid pursuing a code of conduct complaint against one of his colleagues.

Cr Michael Laws was cleared of wrongdoing last month, but about $20,000 was spent on the code of conduct complaint against him, Cr Gary Kelliher has revealed.

"To me the costs were astounding," Cr Kelliher said yesterday.

"I’m really disappointed to see that that amount of money has gone into a code of conduct [complaint] against a councillor, who I believe is just doing his job like we all are."

Cr Kelliher officially asked the Otago Regional Council for the costs of the chief executive’s complaint, and he received answers on Friday.

At that time he learned Leo Donnelly, from public and employment law firm Chen Palmer, helped ORC chief executive Sarah Gardner draft the complaint against Cr Laws.

Cr Kelliher said he was astonished that the ORC’s own in-house legal expert was not used.

Michael Laws. Photo: ODT files
Michael Laws. Photo: ODT files
The independent investigator, Dyhrberg Drayton Employment Law partner Steph Dyhrberg, was paid $10,518.56, plus GST.

The external legal advice from Chen Palmer cost $6437.50, plus GST.

ORC staff time used to collate the evidence against Cr Laws was not recorded.

Nor was the time recorded when the ORC’s in-house lawyer gave limited initial advice.

Therefore the associated costs for neither were provided to Cr Kelliher.

Cr Kelliher said Mrs Gardner obviously felt justified in laying the complaint.

"But every time you do that it’s a huge cost to the ratepayer and they’re bearing an awful lot at the moment, let alone these sorts of the actions."

Sarah Gardner. Photo: ODT files
Sarah Gardner. Photo: ODT files
The basis for Mrs Gardner’s complaint was Cr Laws’ comments in two stories in the Otago Daily Times in late July.

In a July 21 report on illegal dumping into the Clutha River, Cr Laws said it was "extraordinarily embarrassing" the council appeared to have advised a company to do something, which it later took enforcement action over.

He also said he was unhappy with ORC staff’s lack of transparency on the matter.

In a July 23 report on public submissions on low-flow scenarios for the Manuherikia River, Cr Laws said he was annoyed staff had released the report, which he described as "crap" and "bogus".

Mrs Gardner’s complaint is a 71-page document that includes a series of internal emails, copies of the stories in question and screenshots of comments from the public online and on social media posts.

It also included a detailed account of a heated exchange in South Otago between ORC staff and a member of the public following the Clutha dumping story’s publication.

Ultimately, the independent investigator found Cr Laws’ comments did not identify any ORC employees and no information was disclosed that would allow individual identification.

His comments were directed at the ORC as an organisation, not individuals.

They did not breach his obligations regarding courtesy, respect, and public criticism.

For published comments to prejudice the ORC’s ability to provide a safe and healthy workplace to its employees, there must be a real, rather than remote, risk of harm, the investigator said.

hamish.maclean@odt.co.nz

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ORC Councillors seem incapable of controlling their Chief Executive who has not for the first time demonstrated extremely poor judgment that has cost Otago ratepayers tens of thousands of dollars. $20,000 is a lot of money, however the cost of the original issue ( illegal approval from ORC to dump waste) has been ignored. All up I suspect the total cost is in excess of $100,000, perhaps the Councillors should be asking that question? Rates have been increased by 78% and this is how it is being spent, what a disgraceful use of ratepayers money.

Who is the most powerful individual in local government? If you think the mayor or, in the case of the regional councils, the chairperson, then you have illusions about just how much democracy still persists in local government. The Chief Executive is far and away the most powerful or influential. Democracy has gradually given way to more and more managerialism. I notice when a CE keeps well away from political involvement, even manipulation, as they should - and are legally obliged to do. But it is extremely hard to prove when they are crossing this line. Practically, local government CEs are accountable to no-one and nothing but public opinion. I have hopes that DCC CE, Sandy Graham, with her legal background and long experience, will set a new high standard for Dunedin in this respect. So far, so good. In contrast, for ORC CE Gardner to set Chen and Palmer on Cr Laws at ratepayers' expense is nothing short of atrocious.

A 71 page document by the Chief Executive attacking a Councillor is remarkable? And $20,000++ cost to ratepayers is an abuse of position and power. Unfortunately this weak and ineffectual Council will probably do nothing about it?

A clarification - for ORC CE Gardner to make the Code of Conduct complaint herself and then also to make the decision to employ the best and most expensive public law firm in the country to pursue it, is, at the very least, a conflict of interest. IMO, there should be distancing protocols when it is the CE who makes the complaint. Bravo, Cr Laws! I am sure there are many voters ( like me) who do not want to see him shut up.

It's time these money wasting clowns were shut down for good.

One other thing needs mentioning. The original fiasco about ORC approval to dump waste in the river is at the Councils behest being investigated by a High Court Judge. Top lawyers charge $1000++ an hour so this is likely to add tens of thousands of dollars to the bill ratepayers are already paying. This is utter madness! This Council has to be brought under control and Commissioners should be appointed.

Ensuring a safe work place and trying to cover your **** are not the same thing.

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