Editorial: Sloppy at very, very best

So it was terribly sloppy practice that created a misperception of downright dishonesty?

O-kaaay. Even if that is the case, Environment Southland has a huge job ahead of it to win back public confidence after a legal audit of its compliance division.

The findings of environmental lawyer Karenza de Silva identify poor processes and procedures but, just as emphatically, no dishonest or fraudulent behaviour. Just to be clear, that's compliance officer Chris McMillan she's clearing. The audit's focus was so narrow that some of the most troubling complaints against the division - arrogance of approach, in particular - were deemed beyond its scope and best confronted by internal re-examinations. These certainly still stand as matters the council has yet to demonstrate it is confronting head-on.

The now-notorious incident in which Mr McMillan changed a police officer's comment on a form that went to court as part of the prosecution of Euan Shearing Contracting for discharging effluent on the road makes for particularly sorry reading. The audit says that during a joint operation there had been an undocumented "understanding" between police and council officers that they would use an ES form to record the details of trucks inspected during a Gypsy Day crackdown on the widely lamented problem of effluent spills on southern roads.

ES staff understood that the police had responsibility for recording details of the truck whereas they themselves had responsibility for recording details on the same form about any effluent discharge.

Was this the police's understanding too? Evidently not, though they don't have a voice in this report. On the form the police officer noted no discharge but Mr McMillan later changed that. Ms de Silva identifies this as part of very sloppy process and concerning in itself but not carried out with fraudulent intent.

The police were surely entitled to their belief that, as the law made good and clear, an empty truck such as this was a matter for them under the Transport Act. It would have been different had the truck been carrying stock, because that's been deliberately excluded from that act. But this being an empty truck this was surely a box for the police officer to fill in and one which the council staffer had no right whatsoever to change without telling the police.

The case, by common consent, should never have got anywhere near a court. After it was humiliatingly withdrawn the court awarded costs against the council on the grounds that the prosecution had not been brought in good faith, the judge identifying that the council was trying what would have been a mightily significant test-case prosecution under resource management law. Not only are the court and the police clearly unimpressed about this whole malarky, and the public livid; elected environment councillors are clenching up too. It seems the test-case status of this prosecution was news to them. They should have pointed questions for their own staff and legal advisers about this and these should be asked and answered publicly.

Another shoddy case arose during a farm discharge prosecution when Ms de Silva found that Mr McMillan had not read the legally-prepared brief of his evidence before presenting it in court. Even when doing so, and then coming to a bit that was simply untrue - that the council had contacted the farm owner to get a formal statement - he did not immediately correct it but pressed on. The admission was made only under cross-examination.

What we have here is a council that needs to show signs not just of penitence but real progress rehabilitating its public standing.

The Southland Times