Tension between staff and Otago regional councillors has risen to a point where it is affecting the organisation’s work, its chief executive says.
Councillors have launched their own 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 last year.
The follow-up investigation, led by retired High Court Judge Sir Graham Panckhurst, is the latest episode in a series of incidents indicating tension between staff and councillors.
This includes a code of conduct complaint by the chief executive against the deputy chairman, and more recently a general manager losing his cool and calling a councillor’s resolution a "load of rubbish".
Chief executive Sarah Gardner said the decision by councillors to launch the follow-up investigation and the subsequent commentary in the media had put pressure on "a few specific points" of the relationship between the two parts of the council.
"Staff have full work programmes that they are trying to progress, and the way that the investigation was launched and the comments about it to media are impacting that work," Mrs Gardner said.
"It is important for staff to feel trusted and backed in the work that they do.
"Staff and councillors work co-operatively across dozens of other facets of the ORC with great success, but we understand that some disagreement is in the nature of our work and everyone is not always on the same page.
"Our wish is for the ‘Panckhurst investigation’ now under way to proceed fairly and to air this particular issue entirely so that staff and councillors can move on."
The Panckhurst investigation was launched as councillors said they had yet to hear the "actual events" surrounding an illegal dumping of demolition debris into the Clutha River in Balclutha last year.
The construction company, Andrew Haulage, was fined $1250.
However, the council was also issued a warning letter because the construction company put the material in
the river only after it was advised how to do so by council staff.
The EPA investigation found the environmental effects of the incident were minor, localised, and short-lived, but the fallout appears to be more than minor.
Mrs Gardner initiated an investigation of deputy chairman Michael Laws last year in part due to media comments he made after learning about the EPA investigation only when the Otago Daily Times asked about it.
The complaint against Cr Laws was not upheld.
Late last month corporate services general manager Nick Donnelly lost his cool at a meeting, calling Cr Hilary Calvert’s proposed resolution "a load of rubbish" and said if councillors passed it, he would have to talk to his "boss", Mrs Gardner, about the possibility of getting the associated work done.
Nevertheless, Cr Laws said if there was tension, it was probably because councillors were saying: "We don’t just turn up anymore, eat our lunch, and go.
"We’re actually wanting to be actively involved in how we do things.
"There is this dynamic at the moment where governors are saying, well actually, we’re not just people who set the long-term plan, or the annual plan.
"We’re people who also make sure that how you perform your roles and responsibilities is something that we oversee, and you don’t exist in a vacuum, you are accountable for the decisions that you make every day."
Cr Gary Kelliher said councillors were doing a good job of holding the organisation to account.
"That is why we’re seeing so much push-back and turmoil at the moment."
A council spokesman said before the Panckhurst investigation was launched, Mrs Gardner made two offers of a free and frank debrief from staff to chairman Andrew Noone.
The offered debriefing was not taken up, he said.
However, Mr Noone said any debrief offered by Mrs Gardner would have been limited because of the unanswered questions in the EPA investigation.
The Panckhurst investigation was not about looking for a scapegoat but finding out what happened to avoid it happening again, Mr Noone said.
"In terms of [the]relationship between staff and governance we strive for ongoing improvements, with a goal of building a team in an environment of mutual trust and respect, remembering we do have different roles."