Council throws privacy cloak

NPDC General Manager Customer services Cathy Thurston
NPDC General Manager Customer services Cathy Thurston

Privacy has been cited by New Plymouth District Council as it refuses to release information that might help explain the shock resignation of its Puke Ariki boss.

Fiona Emberton quit her high-profile library and museum job last Wednesday after more than a month on sick leave.

Last Friday the Taranaki Daily News sent an official information request to the council in an attempt to find out what was behind Ms Emberton's resignation and what it had cost the council.

Among other things it asked if she had received a severance payout, whether she was still being paid and how much it cost to relocate her to Taranaki from Brisbane last year.

The Daily News also requested copies of all emails mentioning Ms Emberton sent and received by certain senior staff at the council in the past three months to shed light on why she suddenly quit.

Community services general manager Cathy Thurston, who was Ms Emberton's immediate boss, has declined to answer nine of the 10 questions asked, or provide copies of emails to protect Ms Emberton's and other council staff members' privacy.

Under section 7 of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 this is a valid reason for withholding information.

Ms Emberton was recruited from Brisbane last August and when she resigned she had been in the job just 14 months.

Last week, Ms Thurston said she had resigned to "pursue other opportunities".

However, the Taranaki Daily News was told she had a "falling out" with a senior manager and is believed to now be considering whether to pursue a personal grievance case against the council.

Ms Emberton did not answer calls or respond to messages from the Daily News yesterday.

Puke Ariki staff had allegedly been told their leader's absence was because of a severe repetitive strain injury.

Ms Emberton is believed to still be in New Plymouth.

Her appointment to Puke Ariki last year followed an international search to replace outgoing boss Bill Macnaught, who left to take up a position as the director of the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington last May.

Ms Thurston has also cited section seven of the 1987 act for being unable to answer questions about another council employee believed to be on long-term sick leave - recreation and events manager Brent Thawley.

Mr Thawley is another member of Ms Thurston's team and was most recently in the spotlight for overseeing a process that awarded the contract to install the Festival of the Lights at Pukekura Park to a Wellington company, despite a New Plymouth firm having a cheaper price.

Under the act, the council has 20 working days to respond to requests for information.

Ms Thurston responded two working days after the information was asked for.

The Daily News is considering whether to lodge an appeal with the ombudsman on the council's refusal to provide information.

Taranaki Daily News