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Council chairwoman Marian Hobbs said yesterday that since New Zealand entered a Covid-19 lockdown on March 26 — and seven councillors called for a 12-month re-evaluation of the council’s policy and finances, including the withdrawal and suspension of plan changes in progress and a review of its Regional Policy Statement — the council had been divided.
"It has been war," Ms Hobbs said yesterday, confirming she believed some councillors wanted her out as chairwoman at the council.
"If I sound angry, I am. And I’m really not speaking as a chair — I’m speaking as a human being. Because watch this space, love, I’m liable to lose my position as the chair," she said.
"There are people who have been trying to get rid of me several times. They’re trying again now at the moment. And that may happen, but that won’t stop my voice, fighting for the environment in Otago.
"I am pretty sure that at least some of that seven will be working right now as we speak to have me replaced — I’m absolutely sure of that."
The March 26 letter to Ms Hobbs was signed by Crs Michael Laws, Hilary Calvert, Carmen Hope, Gary Kelliher, Kevin Malcolm, Andrew Noone and Kate Wilson.
Several days later Ms Hobbs wrote to Environment Minister David Parker about issues arising from the letter.
When her communication was discovered through an Official Information Act request, what she wrote raised the ire of Federated Farmers, which responded.
A tranche of documents was obtained by the Otago Daily Times yesterday.
Ms Hobbs’ letter to Mr Parker on March 29 asked whether the Environment Court could come back into action before Covid-19 Alert Level 4 — newly in place at the time — was lifted.
But it also asked if she "lost the Omnibus Plan and work on the [regional policy statement], would you consider putting in a commissioner?"
She wrote, further, of her belief that Federated Farmers was working to stop the council’s plans for water in the region.
"The regional policy statement is weak and nonsensical on water," Ms Hobbs wrote. "We have been out consulting on that and have had meetings in the small towns dominated by Federated Farmers. They are behind the campaign to stop the work on water in Otago."
Federated Farmers’ national body took issue in a statement this week with the council’s consultation process, saying the "actions taken by [the regional council] over the lockdown period were at best an inept attempt to ‘tick off’ to the minister that they had sufficiently completed appropriate public consultation on its proposed plan changes".
Federated Farmers Otago president Simon Davies expressed "real concern" with the content of the letter and said the organisation was "assessing our options".
There was a lack of governance at the council at present, he said, which was problematic.
"It’s not the ‘staff’ giving direction or strategy, it’s the governance. And the governance needs to be strong about that, and at the same time that strategy needs to be Otago focused and driven — not other people’s," he said.
"Unfortunately the buck stops with the chair. They’ve taken on the chair’s role, so they must lead."
Cr Calvert yesterday said she was concerned that Ms Hobbs was substituting her interpretation of the views of the Government "for the views of our Otago ratepayers".
"She is prepared to attempt to overthrow the representation of the people of Otago by asking whether the minister would consider putting in a commissioner if the vote doesn’t go her way.
"Those who elected us deserve better than that."
Asked to comment on Ms Hobbs’ assertion there were councillors who wanted her out as chairwoman, Cr Calvert said the "crucial question" was how many councillors that was.
"At the end of the day, if you don’t retain the confidence of the majority of your fellow councillors, it’s time for somebody else to take a crack at being the chair."