Inquiry notes string of council failings

EVAN HARDING
Last updated 05:00 29/11/2012

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An independent report into Environment Southland's compliance division has identified several problems relating to poor processes and procedures which are "unacceptable", council chief executive Rob Phillips has conceded.

The audit was ordered by the regional council following Southland Times articles highlighting complaints from members of the public about the behaviour and actions of the council and its staff, specifically compliance officer Chris McMillan.

The audit, carried out by Auckland environmental lawyer Karenza de Silva, took nearly three weeks to complete and was released yesterday.

It found no evidence of dishonesty or fraudulent behaviour by Environment Southland, although Ms de Silva did not interview the people at the centre of the allegations against Environment Southland.

The audit said The Southland Times was correct when it reported this month that Mr McMillan gave evidence in court that he spoke to the Twin Peaks farm manager about an alleged discharge in October 2010 and, under cross-examination, he acknowledged he had never spoken to the farm manager or farm owner about the alleged discharge.

Ms de Silva, in her findings, said her view was that Mr McMillan made a mistake because he did not check his brief of evidence carefully, which concerned her.

"I found that Mr McMillan did not lie. He quite properly and readily accepted, when cross-examined, that he had made a mistake," she said.

Twin Peaks Farm owner Wayne Hill said yesterday he was flabbergasted by the audit's findings.

"This is just a copout," Mr Hill said, adding that he was not interviewed by Ms de Silva.

Mr Hill questioned why, when Mr McMillan read out his brief of evidence in court, he did not correct himself at that time. Mr McMillan only admitted he had never spoken to him or the farm manager, when asked for a second time under cross-examination in court, Mr Hill said.

Ms de Silva's report also looked at allegations that Mr McMillan changed a statement by a policeman saying a truck owned by Euan Shearing Contracting had not spilled effluent when it was pulled over in a joint Environment Southland and police sting before Gypsy Day in 2011.

Ms de Silva's report said she found the council officer [Mr McMillan] altered the form, but it was an Environment Southland form and not a police statement.

She found there was an undocumented understanding between police and Environment Southland that they would use an Environment Southland form to record the details and results of the inspection of each truck.

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Environment Southland staff understood police had responsibility for recording details of the truck, including licence plate number, on the form and Environment Southland staff had responsibility for recording details on the form about effluent discharge.

Ms de Silva's report said the process led to the "haphazard" completion of the form, which resulted in confusion, and Mr McMillan "did not realise the implications of changing the details in the form".

De Silva's statement is contrary to one made by Southland police Inspector Olaf Jensen to The Southland Times on October 26, in which he said that during the Gypsy Day operation police issued infringement notices for empty stock trucks spilling effluent on roads.

The Shearing truck was empty when it was pulled over.

Mr Shearing, also not interviewed by Ms de Silva, said he was not surprised by the findings. "That's the way they operate . . . they haven't heard the end of it."

Ms de Silva's report said she found no evidence that supported the description in The Southland Times report that council staff were arrogant and aggressive, but this was mentioned in complaints about Environment Southland made after the media reports were published, she said.

"The fact there is this perception is a concern.

"This issue is beyond the scope of this audit."

Findings from her audit of Environment Southland files included poor note-taking, delays in typing file notes, failure to complete all details in incident forms, and not working as a team.

"Best practice" was not being followed by Environment Southland and Ms de Silva recommended a review of its procedures for monitoring and enforcement.

"This is necessary to avoid recurrence of the problems I found in the Shearing case and the Twin Peaks case."

She said the council should take heed of Judge Jeff Smith's comments and findings in the Shearing case, "in particular the need for proper procedures and careful consideration of evidence before making a decision to proceed to a hearing".

"I recommend a review of the procedures for inspection of dairy farms to ensure consistency in monitoring, better communication about details of non-compliance, and a robust approach to enforcement."

Mr Phillips said yesterday it was good news none of his staff was found to have acted dishonestly. But the audit had found that improvements were needed across the board.

The council would review its monitoring and enforcement practices and make sure its staff used nationally accepted best practice, he said.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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