CEO defends ‘unusual’ consent sign-off

Sarah Gardner
Sarah Gardner
The Otago Regional Council’s chief executive  signed off a non-notified consent for a Remarkables skifield extension that other council planners refused to.

An internal council report said the project would destroy a protected wetland. An environmental lawyer says it is "unusual" for a chief executive to sign off a non-notified consent.

Council chief executive Sarah Gardner has defended her involvement, saying there were "always differences" in planning opinions.

On March 22, the council granted land use consent to NZSki Ltd to extend its learners slope at the Remarkables skifield. The project involved extending the existing learners slope, including the construction of two surface escalators, as well as track access to Shadow Basin.

It would destroy a 100sq m wetland listed as "regionally significant" in the council’s water plan.

The consent was not notified, despite a report by the council’s resource science unit saying it should be.

Mrs Gardner admitted it was unusual for a chief executive to sign off on such a consent; however, she did so because council consents manager Chris Shaw was away on bereavement leave.

This was Mr Shaw’s last week at the council.  He was one of five staff made redundant in a staff restructure. The roles were replaced by two new manager roles.

The restructure was unrelated to the consent, Mrs Gardner said.

It is understood Mr Shaw did not agree with Mrs Gardner’s assessment of the consent.

Mrs Gardner said she was not sure how much work he did on the consent.

"I did ask him to do work on it before he went on leave, but subsequently I didn’t ask him to do any work on it."

Two planners refused to sign the consent.

There were always differences of opinion within planning, she said.

"Yes, there were some planners who made a different judgement, but then there were others in the organisation that are qualified that made the same judgement that I did."

The wetland was only "regionally significant" in the council’s plan because it was at an altitude  above 800m, she said.

Even the council scientists who disagreed with her view of the effects of the project said in their report the "biodiversity values within the wetland did not appear to contain any significantly threatened species and many of the botanical values could potentially be translocated", she said.

Although the wetland would be destroyed, there would be "no net loss of vegetation", she said.

Environmental lawyer Maree Baker-Galloway said it "seemed unusual" for a chief executive to sign off a non-notified consent. She did not want to comment on the consent as a whole without knowing more about it.

Council chairman Stephen Woodhead said he was confident the process was handled appropriately.

It seemed it was handled under "normal delegations", he said.

He was aware of the consent at the time, he said.Cr Michael Laws said he was not aware of the consent, which raised "huge issues".

"Even if senior ORC staff are given delegated powers, where’s the accountability and assessment of their actions, back to the ORC governance team? At present, that function simply doesn’t exist."

jono.edwards@odt.co.nz

Comments

Not sure about the CEO, but there are no qualified planners at the orc. Nor are any members of the professional institute. They operate in an ad hoc vacuum with little ethic or expertise

The usual practice is report by environmental scientists and botanists. The organization doing this work is a private company.