31 Aug 2021

Environment law delays: Councillor ready to resign if commissioners aren't appointed

6:58 am on 31 August 2021

An Otago Regional councillor says she's prepared to resign if the Environment Minister doesn't intervene with the dysfunctional council.

Former Minister of Broadcasting Marian Hobbs

Ousted chair Marian Hobbs says vested interests are blocking important environmental reforms. Photo: supplied

It follows a decision by a slim majority of councillors to delay setting a minimum flow for the Manuherekia River in Central Otago last week and wait for more scientific evidence.

Councillor and former ousted chair Marian Hobbs was one of the four councillors who voted against the motion, saying more than $4 million and 26,587 staff hours had already gone into creating thorough scientific reports for councillors to base their decisions off.

Last week, she and several other councillors wrote to Environment Minister David Parker asking for his help, alleging conflicts of interest and unnecessary delays.

She has since signed a petition calling for the elected councillors to be dismissed and Commissioners to be appointed instead.

Marian Hobbs said she had lost faith in the majority of her councillor colleagues.

"I will go to the stage that if the Minister says, and we'll wait for his response, ... 'no, no, no, you've got to continue with the job'. At that stage I will probably retire or resign from the council," Hobbs said.

She was frustrated with the council's history of delaying decisions and worried that staff were sick of it too.

"If I were working for the ORC as a scientist, a planner or an environmentalist, and I put in my all to get this work up ... and to have it totally ignored, it seems to me appalling and I would walk.

"If we continue along this way, we will lose the staff."

That was a big risk as it would mean losing knowledge and experience when the council had so much more work to do, she said.

Council chair Andrew Noone said he was disappointed that some councillors and community members felt that their best course of action was to approach the minister.

"Of course, I'm disappointed but I do feel that we are trying to make decisions and get on with the job. We are trying to meet the timeframes that we committed to with Minister Parker. We just need the right information in front of us to be able to keep on track.

"Some councillors are disappointed but that's sometimes the nature of democracy."

He didn't agree with the points raised in the letter.

"I think the letter exaggerates the situation. I don't believe the issues that they've raised in the letter are valid. To me, a democratic process sometimes does ruffle feathers if the decision go your way.

"I just feel that when we're dealing with such important issues, emotions run high and we see things differently and that's actually the way democracy is supposed to work."

He stood by his motion and the subsequent decision to seek more scientific evidence before making a call on the Manuherekia River minimum flow, saying a decision would be made before the Land and Water Plan was due in 2023.

Central Otago Environmental Society chair Phil Murray said they launched the petition because many people have lost faith the council's ability to act and restore the Manuherekia River.

The council ignored the advice from council staff and the scientific support to implement minimum flows for the river, which was used heavily for irrigation, he said.

"I can just see this being kicked down the road with the hope that these councillors have for the political environment possibly changing some time in the future that they'll be able to live with the current extraction."

It would not be the first time the Minister has been asked to intervene.

Environment Minister David Parker said it was too premature to say if Commissioners would be appointed at the Otago Regional Council.

He confirmed he had received the councillors' letter, but said he wanted to understand more about the issues raised before commenting further.

"It would be premature to speculate about appointing councillors," Parker said.

"The underlying issue - the intersection between deemed permits to take water and the minimum flow for the river - has been a responsibility of the ORC to resolve since the RMA was passed 30 years ago.

In 2019, the Environment Minister requested an investigation to look into the council's preparedness to resolve historic mining privileges ahead of their 2021 deadline, finding that their planning system was not fit for purpose.

Last year, the Minister signalled his decision to refer the council's Water Permits Plan Change and Water Quality Plan Changes to the Environment Court.

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