Councillor: Staff not up front Mayor says there was no conspiracy
A city councillor's $21,000 search for the truth has revealed an "astounding" reluctance by staff to tell councillors the city's wastewater treatment plan discharge could be polluting the Manawatu River.
Chris Teo-Sherrell's Official Information Act request late last year yielded 4000 pages of reports and copies of email exchanges proving staff knew issues were looming.
"We have really been poorly served by officers who have not been up front and completely open," Cr Teo-Sherrell said.
He said the expense of the information request was worth it.
"To know whether staff are trustworthy or not is worth a whole lot more than that.
"I have reached my conclusions, whether I can trust staff or not, and I leave it to others to make theirs."
But Mayor Jono Naylor dismissed the exercise as a waste of time and of ratepayers' money.
He said there was no conspiracy, and no motive for a coverup.
"I don't believe Cr Teo-Sherrell's exercise achieved anything, and certainly did not help the river."
Chief executive Paddy Clifford said a peer review of his handling of the issue supported his own assessment, that staff had discharged their duties appropriately.
Horizons Regional Council's claim that the discharge from the Totara Rd site was having a significant adverse effect on aquatic life went public on September 12 last year.
That was when Cr Teo-Sherrell found a report on Horizons' website, due to go to its environment committee two days later, claiming the city was responsible for "considerable" and "sustained" consent breaches.
He demanded to know why councillors had been assured there were no breaches.
The discussion was ruled out of order, but not before City Networks general manager Ray Swadel said he had never misled the council on the matter.
Mr Swadel said the council had always been compliant until Horizons' June 24 assessment, which was disputed.
Cr Teo-Sherrell later made an OIA request to his own council, and the bulk of the material was released just before Christmas.
From the documents, he said it was apparent staff could have, and should have, raised red flags as early as February.
That was when the council received the results of a benthic biota survey, assessing the health of pollution-sensitive aquatic life, that was required as part of its discharge consent.
It was forwarded to Horizons, and used as the basis of the regional council's subsequent assessment that the city council was not complying.
But in April and again in July, quarterly reports to the city council's finance and performance committee recorded green lights on compliance issues.
Matters became more serious on June 24, when Horizons issued its non-compliance assessment, sparking a flurry of exchanges between staff. They quite clearly recognised the significance and serious implications, Cr Teo-Sherrell said.
Mr Clifford was involved at that point, and sought updates on meetings between staff of both councils. There was a series of emails in early September.
Cr Teo-Sherrell said there was a reluctance by staff to accept the findings of Horizons, and the denial that staff knew a report was going to Horizons' environment committee was contradicted by emails in early September.
Mr Clifford had his preliminary assessment peer-reviewed by Rosalind Webby, a lawyer from the Employers' Chamber of Commerce Central, and she concurred with his stance.
Mr Clifford said that when staff became aware of the non-compliance assessment by Horizons at the end of June, they expressed concern over the assessment for several reasons. Those were discussed with Horizons staff on July 11.
"I understand that Horizons staff were also surprised by the final result and were going to review their findings."
Mr Clifford said city staff believed discussions were continuing into September.
"My staff were not aware at that stage that the matter was being reported to Horizons' environment committee on September 14," Mr Clifford said.
"I have checked the respective emails in this regard and although my staff knew that a report would eventually go to a committee of Horizons, they did not know up to September 12 that one had been prepared."
They did not know it was on the Horizons agenda until Cr Teo-Sherrell raised the matter at the planning and policy meeting.
"Staff had not been forewarned by Cr Teo-Sherrell. . . that he was going to raise the matter. . . and his statement came as a complete surprise.
"Had Cr Teo-Sherrell first sat down with my staff and discussed his concerns with them all of this cost and effort could have been avoided."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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