Damning report highlights problems at ORC

The relationship between Otago regional councillors and the former chief executive was "unwell if not broken", a damning report into last year’s Clutha dumping incident has found.

The report by retired High Court Judge Sir Graham Panckhurst goes on to say there could be "fundamental problems related to leadership and culture" at the Otago Regional Council.

And it says there are serious issues around transparency at the council as advice and information was "not shared willingly, nor accurately and promptly".

Sarah Gardner. Photo: supplied
Sarah Gardner. Photo: supplied
The report comes after the chief executive of the council at the time of the incident, Sarah Gardner, left the council.

However, today, in releasing the report, council chairman Andrew Noone said that he and  interim chief executive Dr Pim Borren supported the findings of the report in full.

Sir Graham said the council needed to take action in relation to communication and transparency, and there was a "rift" between the staff, or chief executive, and councillors

"In essence it seems the problem is that staff think that councillors do not stick to their role of strategic direction and policy; and if monitoring performance councillors do not treat staff with respect," Sir Graham said.

"Councillors, however, consider that staff seek to influence strategy and policy; and as for communication that they are only told what staff wants them to know.

"If these perceptions are shown to be correct there are fundamental problems related to leadership, and culture."

The "Panckhurst Investigation" was launched after Cr Michael Laws obtained emails between council staff and the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) last year following an EPA investigation into the dumping of demolition debris into the Clutha River in Balclutha last March.

The council called in the EPA to conduct the investigation because its staff were involved in the incident.

However, the emails between the two organisations indicated the council soon brought in lawyers to protect staff and they then refused to speak to the EPA.

The resulting EPA report noted the lack of evidence limited its ability to assess the situation.

Nevertheless, the national environmental regulator later stood by its investigation as "thorough".

The construction company that dumped the debris, Andrew Haulage, was fined $1250 and the council was issued a warning letter because the construction company put the material in the river only after receiving advice from council staff.

The incident was labelled "extraordinarily embarrassing" by Cr Laws at the time.

Today, Sir Graham’s report said the communication void at the council and the absence of transparency that occurred in relation to the incident was significant.

The report confirms councillors were shocked to learn about the EPA investigation and only did after the Otago Daily Times started asking questions about it.

It goes on to make eight recommendations for the council to consider.

Cr Noone said today changes had been implemented at the council in accordance with the conclusions and recommendations of the report.

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