ORC head to leave next week

Sarah Gardner
Sarah Gardner

Otago Regional Council chief executive Sarah Gardner says she is leaving the council in "good heart".However, her departure comes as tensions between staff and councillors have disrupted normal operations, the organisation appears to be poised to miss a deadline for a freshwater planning milestone, and it is under two separate investigations — one ordered by Environment Minister David Parker, the other by councillors.

Mrs Gardner announced her resignation yesterday, four years into the job.

She will leave next week.

She said yesterday her relationship with councillors had nothing to do with her departure and she had "full respect" for them.

She was not asked to leave nor was she told that her five-year contract would not be renewed.

"I am leaving under my own steam," she said.

Her contract was due to expire in January and it was the right time for thinking about what she did next.

She had been talking to councillors about leaving and the short notice period had graciously been agreed to "so that I can meet other commitments that I have".

She would not elaborate on those commitments yesterday but said she would be leaving Dunedin to pursue them.

She disagreed the council was "embattled".

"Every council has its challenges," she said.

"And, like I said, the organisation is in really good heart and we are moving forward with the work programme in a really positive way.

"I have been very happy with the way that the organisation has been working.

"It has come a long way since I started, and the staff of ORC are fantastic."

Still, her resignation comes after a tumultuous period.

In March, councillors launched an investigation into staff actions after staff declined to take part in an Environmental Protection Authority investigation into illegal dumping of waste into the Clutha River.

Mrs Gardner last year laid a code of conduct complaint against then deputy chairman Cr Michael Laws for his comments in the media about the ORC.

Several recent council meetings have been testy.

In one episode, councillors called for a video replay of a previous decision when Mrs Gardner questioned whether a protocol she set should be included in an independent review of the councillors’ code of conduct, also under way.

Chairman Andrew Noone said yesterday the timing of the departure was not related to the new investigation of the council by Prof Peter Skelton, ordered by Mr Parker this week.

However, the Otago Daily Times reported Mrs Gardner warned against asking for an extension of Mr Parker’s deadlines at the time.

Mr Parker said yesterday he was aware of Mrs Gardner’s resignation, but was not aware of the details.

He had no further comment to make.

Former chairwoman Marian Hobbs, who also resigned from the council this triennium, said she had been aware Mrs Gardner had been applying for other jobs.

It was normal for someone nearing the end of a five-year term, she said.

Mrs Gardner was patient and an excellent team builder who restructured the staff and attracted people "of real value" to the organisation, Ms Hobbs said.

"I’ve also been aware that she hasn’t been comfortable with progress on a whole number of issues that have happened there."

Cr Laws yesterday said he would not be making any comment "at all".

Cr Alexa Forbes referred comment to the council chairman, Cr Noone.

Cr Gretchen Robertson said Mrs Gardner had immense integrity and hoped her loss did not slow council freshwater planning.

Cr Bryan Scott said he was "gutted" to see Mrs Gardner resign and losing her would affect the council’s ability to deliver on its responsibilities, including its freshwater programme.

Cr Michael Deaker said he was sad to see her go.

Cr Noone declined to be interviewed yesterday but through a spokeswoman said the council had taken steps to ensure continuity of leadership and momentum.

Mrs Gardner made a considerable contribution in her time at the council and would be sorely missed, he said.

"Her legacy will be evident in several areas, particularly with the strength of the team she has built in the organisation, with the greater role council is playing in projects making a difference on the ground across Otago, with the fit for purpose freshwater policy in progress, and in the exciting new headquarters development that the organisation expects to relocate to next year."

In a public excluded meeting yesterday, a subcommittee of councillors was chosen to identify candidates for the role of either acting or interim chief executive ahead of a full recruitment process.








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