A district like no other? They surely got that right

21:16, Nov 30 2012

Accountability. Now there's a word you don't hear a lot of these days.

You do when it comes to those without power wanting to hold those in power to account, but sadly, when it comes to the latter group, accountability is something often preached but not practised.

Those who hold the power are often spending someone else's money, and from their lips, the word accountability enters the rarefied world that used to be inhabited by the moa. One recent story that appeared on the front page of this fine newspaper brought this line of thought sharply back to the forefront of my thinking.

You may have shared similar misgivings when you got the paper out of the letterbox and read the lead story on page one, headlined Puke Ariki boss resigns.

As someone with a real interest in the place, I read the story with amazement, sadness and then anger as the story unfolded.

I was amazed because Fiona Emberton left after a little more than a year in the job. This was a high-profile cultural leader who had held top management positions in the United Kingdom and Australia.


The tartan carpet was laid out for her (she is Scottish and red can be oh so tacky) on her arrival.

There was the infamous dinner at the city's top restaurant with a bill to match, at just under $1000, for important unnamed stakeholders to meet an unnamed new manager at the council.

Disgruntled council sources (those not invited) told us it was Ms Emberton, but neither chief executive Barbara McKerrow nor Mayor Harry Duynhoven would reveal who was at the slap-up dinner. We could be trusted to foot the bill, but not handle the information.

The one thing we can be sure of is that we are a generous district when it comes to such occasions.

Then there was the welcome do, when Ms Emberton was introduced in her role as head of New Plymouth's library and museum to more than 100 people, including dignitaries and Puke Ariki staff, in August last year. The cost? Who knows? As an aside, maybe it was more, or less, than the recent well-attended farewell function for Anthony Wilson. Confirmation indeed that we are a generous district when it comes to such occasions, but please don't compare it to the behaviour of a corporate acting in such a lavish manner; it's not as though Puke Ariki has any competition.

Anyway, just over a year later, we are told she has resigned and a bit more digging by a switched-on reporter or two has revealed that Ms Emberton had been on sick leave for more than a month. Presumably this is a sign that all was not going well between Ms Emberton and her boss, or bosses.

Cynics may doubt that she was, in fact, sick. She may well have been stressed, but really often it is a tactic designed to keep someone away from the place, on full pay, until those issues are resolved. And who pays? It's not the council, it's us, the New Plymouth ratepayers, of course.

Then, just to add insult to financial injury, the Daily News asked New Plymouth District Council community services general manager Cathy Thurston why Ms Emberton was on sick leave and when was she returning to work. The many questions surrounding the issue were not answered.

In an email, Ms Thurston wrote: "In response to your inquiry Fiona Emberton has advised me of her resignation to pursue other opportunities. We wish her all the best."

That was it. No more answers to any questions. "Ms Thurston would not discuss what made Ms Emberton leave, other than to say her resignation was effective immediately and Kelvin Day was the acting manager of Puke Ariki," read the Daily News story.

Now excuse me, but that is not good enough. Despite the paper lodging an Official Information Act request with the ombudsman's office to find out some facts, any facts, in fact, the Privacy Act was used to stonewall those requests.

So we may never know how much of our money was wasted.

I'm not picking on Ms Thurston, it is the prevailing culture that is rampant at the council.

We deserve to know what's going on so why not be open and share the truth with us? Don't hide behind the excesses of the Privacy Act, or the subterfuge of the "it is an employment matter". As council staff you work for us and you should be accountable to us.

Before we leave that subject, is anyone out there aware of the whereabouts of recreation and events manager Brent Thawley? You may remember him, the switched-on chap who took over from the late Garry Sharpe-Young. Thawley is also believed to be on sick leave and has been for some time, but inquiries on his well- being were also stonewalled by use of the Privacy Act.

New Plymouth, a district Like No Other? Absolutely.

Finally, I totally agree with Nigel Ogle, from Tawhiti Museum. You don't need to scour the world for a third consecutive overseas appointment - try the local market. Who knows, David Shearer could be free in February, or if you can't wait till then, maybe the other David; you know the competent-but-disliked Cunliffe one?

And there are plenty of perks.

Taranaki Daily News