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The spend has been deemed a waste of ratepayers’ money by one councillor and the chief executive says she is looking at bringing more work in-house, but it is sometimes cheaper to use a consultant.
Cr Gary Kelliher asked for a detailed report on the spending after being "absolutely staggered" on learning the total spent on consultants this year at an earlier council committee meeting.
A report provided to a full council meeting this week detailed $5,163,000 spending on consultants and $1,535,000 on legal advice between July last year and May this year.
The departments of council that most used consultants were policy ($1.5 million), consents ($1.2 million), public transport ($780,000), science ($487,000) and operations ($361,000).
Cr Kelliher said the numbers were frightening.
"I did not expect it to be quite as bad as that."
He believed some of the spending was a waste, for example, $188,991.70 plus GST paid to public law firm Chen Palmer.
Several lawyers from Chen Palmer, including Mai Chen, were hired to provide "councillor conflict of interest legal advice, other governance advice, councillor-requested conflict of interest process, HR" .
Hiring Chen Palmer, which former chairwoman Cr Marian Hobbs approved, was with the intention of silencing some councillors in water plan discussions, he said.
In March, he and Cr Kate Wilson, both farmers whose businesses hold water permits, were deemed unable to vote on the council’s Water Permit Plan Change following the legal advice.
Cr Kelliher said the lawyer’s advice "stated the obvious", and he and Cr Wilson had understood their conflicts and were managing them.
Cr Kelliher said he recognised the council was under pressure due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a recent report showing years of underinvestment in science and planning by the council, but wanted it to work towards filling some of the roles being carried out by consultants with its own staff.
Cr Michael Laws said the figures "take your breath away" and asked whether it was better to have staff cover the positions and whether the level of spending was going to continue the same for the next 12 months.
Cr Michael Deaker wanted to know how it compared with other regional councils.
Council chief executive Sarah Gardener said the spending was only 8% of the council’s total budget for 2019-20 and sometimes it was cheaper for the council to use a consultant for short-term work than to hire permanent staff.
It was difficult to recruit full-time staff and there were times where a suitable person to hire could not be found.
Consultants would always be needed to manage some work required of the council, especially around freshwater.
"The Skelton investigation last year determined that ORC is under-resourced in areas that are crucial to our core work, this requires supplementing our permanent staff with consultants."
Mrs Gardner said yesterday she was looking at hiring more staff and would ensure mentoring was included in consultant services to upskill existing council staff.
The information on spending was provided for 11 months instead of the requested 12 months because of deadlines for other council work interfering with gathering the data for June, she said.