Editorial: Still a lot of work to do

Environment Southland. The organisation has one of the most important roles of all the local authorities in Southland in its oversight of the consent process for much of the development of the province, but the name is now conjuring up a jumble of mixed messages in the minds of the public.

The truly stupid and quite vindictive action of chairwoman Ali Timms in pretending to be a struggling young mother when haranguing Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt on the city council's live Cue TV talkback show was nothing more than a seriously misguided attempt to embarrass him while pushing her own political agenda.

Ms Timms has survived that, narrowly, to keep her job after the special meeting of Environment Southland on Thursday; survived, but with her and her council's reputation in tatters.

All involved in this sorry affair have a massive job ahead in restoring that reputation.

Honesty and integrity are the main planks of an organisation that is essentially the region's environmental police force. Much of the work it is required to do is controversial, because it is charged with controlling and maintaining the balance between development and environment.

Its decision-making has always been likely to cause angst, particularly when the expansive ambitions of the dairy industry are pitted against the need to protect the quality of the region's waterways, but until recently its rulings have been seen by most as a tough but fair compromise between the two.

The Timms debacle has severely shaken that, especially because it came only weeks after the council was forced to acknowledge that in one instance one of its compliance officers had provided false information in a court hearing and in another the same officer had been involved in a deliberate attempt to circumvent the law in the council's pursuit of what it saw as systemic polluting by the trucking industry.

That the same compliance officer, Chris McMillan, altered a statement recorded by a police officer - an action vigorously defended by Environment Southland though senior police officers were not impressed when they learned of what had gone on - just added to the public disquiet about the culture at the regional council.

The council has decided to offer up compliance division manager Mark Hunter as the person responsible for those instances of - to put the best possible face on it - lack of judgment, announcing last week that he had resigned after an independent audit. It did itself no favours, though, by refusing to comment on what is understood to be a substantial financial settlement that accompanied the "resignation".

Ms Timms has now publicly apologised for her impersonation and vowed to tackle the many serious issues that will come before the council in the months to come as an independent chair should.

It is time to move on, Ms Timms says, and she is right. But top of the order paper of serious issues needs to be a concerted effort to win back public confidence in the organisation, from the top down.

The hardest task of all will be in regaining the confidence, or even acceptance, of Mr Shadbolt. He has shown an unrelenting ability to extract full measure for perceived slights during more than a decade as the head of the city council, and with that track record his comment that he hopes he and Ms Timms can work together positively in the future has a ring of polite menace.

The Southland Times