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Napier Meltdown

Sophie Price29 May 2017

 

If someone said only twelve months ago that the art deco palace that is Napier City Council would be crumbling down around its would be king – chief executive Wayne Jack – no one would believe it.

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FOR YEARS UNDER HIS WATCH, to an outside observer the authority was taking the tourist town from strength to strength. Almost nil council debt, good tourism numbers and low unemployment – the city claimed to be the jewel of Hawke’s Bay.

However, in hindsight – cracks in the stucco façade began to appear almost four years ago – cracks that could eventually become structurally damaging.

In 2013 the council officially opened the $18 million MTG – a building ratepayers are still paying for. The same year it sold o the art deco buses, for which it paid more than $1 million of ratepayers’ money several years previously. And then last year, it voted to spend $500,000 on investigating a $15 million velodrome.

In the middle of all this, NCC publically rejected claims made by the Local Government Commission during the amalgamation debate that it was in far worse financial shape than it appeared.

The LCC report said Napier had under- invested in roading and water services and, that in order to get these up to scratch with the rest of the region, NCC would need to go into defi cit by $45 million. Jack said the LCC report was “riddled with inaccurate information”, was out by $500 million and called for it to be retracted. The then commission chair Basil Morrison refused this as the report’s authors – MWH – based their findings on information provided by the council and from publically available information.

Taken as individual items, no one would think twice about them – past newspaper articles run on them – today’s fish and chip wrapping. However, with ratepayers still propping up the MTG to the tune of $12,500 a month, the buses sold off to a private party for less than 5 per cent of what was paid for them and the proposed Multi-use Sports Facility [aka velodrome] now estimated at $22.5 million, questions arise.

We did try to sort out the issues behind closed doors, asking the mayor for a meeting, but he dismissed that. We learnt from dealing with Hastings council that the only way to get any traction on an issue is by getting it into the public arena.” JESSICA MAXWELL, WATCHDOG!

Going to the dogs

In August last year, a small group called WATCHDOG! entered the picture – with a bite far worse than their bark.

WATCHDOG! chair Jessica Maxwell first made headlines when she took on Hastings District Council about the poor state of its dog pound. At the time Mayor Lawrence Yule worked with his acting chief executive John O’Shaughnessy to commission an independent report into what was happening at the facility, which led to major changes.

This time however – after one month of getting nowhere trying to work with council directly, WATCHDOG! went public, placing ads in the local media focusing on a legal letter about the pound to a journalist. On 20 September 2016 Fairfax Media broke a story stating that WATCHDOG! was calling for an independent review of the pound claiming staff concerns from as far back as May had gone unaddressed. This claim was rebu ed by Jack, who said at the time there was no need for an independent review as the concerns were being dealt with.

This chain of events resulted in an independent investigation launched by the Ministry of Primary Industries, which began with an audit of the pound. This first part concluded with a report released in January, 2017. The second part of MPI’s investigation into allegations of breaches of the Animal Welfare Act is [at time of publication] still ongoing.

However, it has since been revealed that former animal control officer Wayne Butcher first raised concerns about the pound and its team leader, Alex Pollock, with council’s planning manager Richard Munneke back in November 2015. Feeling he was not being heard by Munneke, Butcher took the matter to the council’s human resources department. From this, independent HR company Grow were commissioned to investigate the matter. In December 2015, Grow investigator Lynnette Blackburn said Butcher’s concerns about Pollock required further investigation.

As things had not improved at the pound, four animal control officers  (ACOs) went to lawyer GW Calver, who penned a letter to Jack. Calver said the ACOs, including Butcher, approached him “with serious concerns about the present situation at the animal control division of the council”. Furthermore he said “there have been a number of complaints made by one or other of the ACOs subsequent to Mr Pollock’s appointment as team leader.” Calver wrote that the ACOs were worried that Pollock was not “leading them by example”, that his behaviour was allegedly “intimidatory”, “undermining”, and that he purportedly was playing staff members o against one another.

“I duly declined these o ers on the basis of my morals and principals. I therefore cannot accept what I consider ‘hush’ money from yourself that, I strongly believe, is money that belongs to the Napier ratepayers.” WAYNE BUTCHER, FORMER ANIMAL CONTROL OFFICER

“I would be grateful if you would take decisive steps to protect their health and safety of Animal Control staff and to ensure that relationships with the department are drastically improved.”

This letter found its way to WATCHDOG!, who then approached Dalton in August 2016 to try and deal with the matter internally – one month before the story broke on the front page of a national newspaper. “We did try to sort out the issues behind closed doors, asking the mayor for a meeting,” said Maxwell, citing an email to this effect. “But he dismissed that. We learnt from dealing with Hastings council that the only way to get any traction on an issue is by getting it into the public arena.” So, under the leadership of Maxwell, WATCHDOG! approached the media, with the story appearing on the front page of the Dom Post and a full page advert appearing in a local weekly.

Both items drew swift reaction from the council, with Jack penning an unsent letter to the Dom Post’s editor and a complaint laid against WATCHDOG! with the Advertising Standards Authority. In his letter Jack said the news article had “put an end to the contented atmosphere we had spent months building”. Jack explained that as a result of the article Butcher had been o ered special leave in order to cope with the “visible distress he is in”. “He feels his reputation at council – and with the public he interfaces with every day – is damaged, that he is viewed as a ‘narc’ and he is shaken and anxious.” Butcher disputed this in an email saying: “I do not agree with the contents [of the letter] and do not believe it is true and correct. I do not give my permission for this letter to be sent”. The complaint to the ASA was not upheld.

On September 29 Jack invited Butcher to mediation via a letter to discuss, amongst other things, the Calver letter, which Jack believed Butcher had “some involvement” in disclosing. Around this time the council made Butcher the first of three record of settlements to end his employment with the authority – which Butcher did not accept.

Over the next week, Butcher was offered two more settlements of increasing amounts, which Butcher turned down as he wanted to give evidence to the MPI investigator – evidence he was advised he could give by both Jack and Calver. “I can confirm that these terms [of Butcher’s record of settlement] do not limit you from disclosing information to the Ministry of Primary Industries at their lawful request,” Jack said in an email to Butcher on October 28. Butcher was subsequently suspended because Jack alleged he “supplied confidential information to a third party”. While this third party has never been disclosed, it is commonly understood to be the MPI investigator.

On October 31, Butcher resigned via email. “I duly declined these offers on the basis of my morals and principals. I therefore cannot accept what I consider ‘hush’ money from yourself that, I strongly believe, is money that belongs to the Napier ratepayers.” Jack, who accepted Butcher’s resignation, wrote to Butcher’s union representative on November 1 about the matter.

“In a rather perplexing manner Mr Butcher has today provided me with an open letter of resignation referring to our without prejudice discussion and falsely claiming that the exit package was ‘hush’ money. I am concerned about the incorrect perception he seems to have developed in regards to our discussions and the purposes.”

“Inevitably, due to the sheer volume of projects being undertaken, oversights will occur. We will continue to work towards greater efficiency as we strive to improve the amenity value of the City.” BILL DALTON, NAPIER MAYOR

With Butcher now gone and the first part of the MPI investigation complete, NCC felt confi dent enough to issue a press release stating the ministry found no breaches of the animal welfare code and that “shortfalls” identifi ed by the report were taken for immediate action by the council.

However, when the report was released to the media under the O cial Information Act, although it said the pound was predominantly well run, it found one critical non-compliance, three major non-compliances and two minor non-compliances. In an email sent out to councillors on 26 January, 2017, Jack said: “in terms of the report the content of it and its context this is a matter of interpretation, and in this case, semantics – one person’s ‘non compliance’ is another’s ‘shortfall’”. Jack said while there was nothing inaccurate in the NCC press release, he agreed the timing of the release was poor.

Since the release of the report, two more pound sta have resigned – Pollock and the new kennel attendant – a position created out of the MPI investigation. The attendant only served three months before resigning. Despite this Jack said the facility is in “great shape” with a committed director “leading the team from the ground up”. He said: “vast improvements have been made in our animal control area.”

Troubles multiply

While uncovering the above is commendable, WATCHDOG! has done more than that. By championing the welfare of the animals under the care of the council, this group has exposed a seemingly troubled culture at the council that extends beyond the issues at the pound.

Since ‘poundgate’ NCC has faced criticism over its handling of McLean Park – which it is now spending $2 million to fix ($1.1 million more than the original budget), questions as to why the refurbished conference centre makes no reference to the war memorial it once stood for, why sewage was released into Ahuriri Estuary and why the costs of the proposed multi-sport facility (MSF) have increased by almost $8 million from when the project was fi rst put to the public.

[Editor note: Dalton and Jack refused to be interviewed on these matters, and replied with written responses to questions BayBuzz submitted.]

Jack said the initial funding for McLean Park was allocated for the purposes of re- turfi ng the park. “The issue that was been brought to light by the experiences of the abandoned One Day International match related to subsurface drainage which was not an issue that Council were aware of during the Annual Plan process.”

In reference to the conference centre, which has been at the heart of another debate surrounding council decisions, Dalton said it was decided, following consultation with the RSAs, to remove the memorial, put it in safe keeping and subsequently reinstall it in a more appropriate place. “I am sure those fallen heroes would applaud this positive decision,” he said.

On the wastewater issue – which is being investigated by Hawke’s Bay Regional Council – Jack said all correct protocols were followed leading up to the discharge. He clarifi ed that wastewater was not discharged directly into the estuary but rather into the stormwater drains, and that this discharge was related to excess infl ow and infiltration associated with older parts of the city’s piped wastewater network. “These are not issues that can be resolved overnight – however a long term programme of investigation and physical works will be developed with the objective of minimising these issues,” he said.

In midst of all of this, WATCHDOG! has called for Jack’s resignation. The chief executive’s contract is up for renewal in September – almost two years since “poundgate” began. No doubt WATCHDOG! will be watching. 

In a statement released by Dalton and councillors Faye White, Tony Jeffery, Keith Price and Kirsten Wise, they say Napier is currently going through a period of growth not seen for many years. “Inevitably, due to the sheer volume of projects being undertaken, oversights will occur. We will continue to work towards greater e ciency as we strive to improve the amenity value of the City.” No mention was made from either councillors or Jack about the MSF in their statements for this article.

Staffing issues beyond the pound are wide reaching and seemingly go back to as far as February 2015, when the NCC settled an unfair dismissal case with its former economic development manager Ron Massey. Three complaints were laid against Massey and at the time he claimed that the dismissal was “predetermined” and “unjustifi ed”. Jack admitted to the Employment Relations Authority that Massey’s suspension the year before [2014] was based on “hearsay”, but refuted claims there was an agenda to push him out the door.

The following year (2016) Jack steered the council restructure – replacing 78 old jobs with 78 new jobs. At the time NCC’s Staff Association said the realignment led to key managers in the three waters, roads and design leaving council. “The implications of the loss of so many experienced staff is alarming,” the association said at the time. Revealing Jack’s $29,000 pay increase, the association said he had reduced the morale of the organisation to “an all-time low” – an assertion rejected by the chief executive.

One of these managers, Scott Estcourt, is currently before the ERA claiming to be unjustifi ably dismissed from a position where his role of “significant seniority” was disestablished and he was offered a new support role position with much lower status – an assertion rejected by the council. Estcourt told the ERA that he felt bullied, was upset, and if offered an equivalent position he would have taken it. According to media reports, this is the second personal grievance he has filed against the council. Two more cases against the council are heading to the ERA in the coming months, with at least 12 resignations directly related to last year’s realignment.

Despite these reports, Jack said sta morale is good. “Considering our realignment is still fairly recent, we are finding there’s an energetic and progressive spirit around the Council buildings. The views expressed in the media by the Sta Association – 112 members of our workforce of around 700, including casuals – are in no way a refl ection on NCC spirit as a whole and should be taken within the context of the ongoing negotiations NCC is continuing, in good faith, with the Association.”

The stucco façade may have remained intact had Dalton and Jack had taken up WATCHDOG!’s offer of dealing with the pound matter behind closed doors. However, it didn’t. “At the end of the day, all WATCHDOG! wants is for impounded dogs or other animals to be treated humanely. That is all, nothing more, nothing less,” Maxwell said.

In the midst of all of this, WATCHDOG! has called for Jack’s resignation. The chief executive’s contract is up for renewal in September – almost two years since “poundgate” began. No doubt WATCHDOG! will be watching.

Sophie Price29 May 2017

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