Repair 'toxic' environment trustees told

Last updated 05:00 12/04/2014

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A judge has put the hard word on trustees of a major Treaty claim funder to improve the "toxic environment" that has infected their work and could threaten the claims process.

The dispute at the Crown Forestry Rental Trust has split the six trustees, who include former Maori Land Court chief judge and Waitangi Tribunal chairman Sir Edward Durie, and trust chairwoman and former Council of Trade Unions secretary Angela Foulkes.

In the latest in a series of High Court decisions on the dispute, Justice Joe Williams said it was time for trustees to deploy the professionalism for which they were appointed.

Without compromise, the future of the trust would be bleak. "This court will certainly not stand on the sideline while trustee conflict at CFRT brings the Waitangi Tribunal process to a standstill," he said.

When trustees could not agree on one issue, they agreed to bow to the independent view of former Court of Appeal judge Sir Bruce Robertson.

In his opinion, Robertson commented that a "toxic environment" had developed among trustees and appeared to have also infected lawyers acting for them.

Williams said: "I can only say, with some sadness, that my own impressions are in accord with those of Sir Bruce."

The trust was set up in 1989 with three members each appointed by Maori and the Crown.

Rental from the Crown's commercial forests is invested, and the interest earned can be distributed to help Maori claims that involve, or could involve, Crown forest.

The Maori Council and the trustees aligned with it, Durie and Maanu Paul, wanted an independent trustee appointed in place of Foulkes.

Williams refused. Instead, the trustees had to meet to discuss their philosophical differences, he said. An independent person or group was to "facilitate" that meeting and, if the parties could not agree on who that should be, the court would decide. If the trustees could not agree on an agenda, the court would impose one.

Williams said the trustees were leaders of their communities and their fields. "I accept that this means they will have healthy egos, strong opinions and will be used to getting their own way.

"But I do not accept that they lack the wit and professionalism to work their way through the philosophical differences they bring to governance of this important trust."

The judge also refused to sanction a recent meeting to decide representation on the Maori side.

The Maori Council and the Federation of Maori Authorities were the right bodies to make the appointments but the process they used did not conform with what was needed under the trust rules.

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- The Dominion Post

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