On Thursday the Regional Council announced that CEO Andrew Newman would relinquish his HBRC post, temporarily, so as to officially spend 100% of his time advancing the $600 million dam project on behalf of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Investment Company (HBRIC), the wholly-owned offspring of the Council.
The announcement is pure cosmetics, through which HBRC hopes to calm escalating public worries, and specifically those of Mayor Yule and Arnott, who have publicly expressed serious concern about HBRC/HBRIC conflicts of interest, and specifically concerns about Newman’s dual role.
As the mayors wrote in their complaint regarding Newman to HBRC chair Fenton Wilson: “A Council is reliant on receiving independent information on all aspects of a project but most particularly the financial risks to the ratepayers. We do not believe this is possible when the same person is the ‘hands on driver’ of such a project. In our opinion these roles should be separated.”
On paper, the HBRC has separated the roles. But in reality, the only practical effect of this fig leaf is to allow Liz Lambert to officially exercise all the authorities Council has normally delegated to its CEO. She can affix the common seal and sign cheques.
However, when it comes to the dam, obviously all the pertinent staff ‘working at HBRIC’ (a piece of paper, after all) to advance the dam are HBRC employees still reporting to Newman wearing his HBRIC hat … and dancing to his tune.
HBRC’s media release says that current General Manager Operations Liz Lambert will become the interim HBRC Chief Executive, and she “will be responsible for guiding Council through its decision on whether or not to invest in the Ruataniwha Storage Scheme following independent advice obtained by Council and following a further public consultation process.”
The fundamental question is how is HBRC going to inform its promised “independent” judgment, with all the knowledgeable regional council staff working for Newman?
I and many others are quite eager to hear how and from whom HBRC will obtain its “independent advice”. This is especially critical with respect to the financial and economic assumptions underlying the dam proposal. And this is precisely what has concerned the mayors, who have offered to pay for an independent risk assessment.
Mrs Lambert needs to share her views with the public on how she intends to secure “independent advice”, sooner rather than later. The economic risks inherent in this project have been carefully sheltered from the public … and specifically we ratepayers who are on the books — so far — for $80 million of the project’s cost.
From there, she can move on to explaining what kind of public consultation she has in mind. How about a public referendum after the Board of Inquiry reports in next year, Mrs Lambert? It’s only the biggest public investment in Hawke’s Bay history, after all.
Finally, I’ll note that the HBRC media release says Mrs Lambert will be “taking over all responsibilities of the CEO except employment contracts for management staff.” Andrew Newman will still hold that responsibility. And by reputation, he’s a boss you don’t cross.
Sorry, as these matters are considered, somehow I just can’t get this Tui sign out of my mind:
“Newman no longer involved in Regional Council decisions … yeah right!”