3 Jun 2015

Council accused of vetting applicants over views on dam

8:28 am on 3 June 2015

The Hawke's Bay Regional Council (HBRC) is being accused of vetting job applicants about their opinion on the Ruataniwha Dam and getting rid of existing staff members who question it.

The proposed Ruataniwha Dam would be built on this site in Hawke's Bay.

The site in Hawke's Bay of the proposed Ruataniwha Dam Photo: RNZ / Peter Fowler

Scott Wynands applied unsuccessfully for a job at the council and said he was told it was too politically sensitive for him to work there because he opposed the dam.

However the regional council rejected any suggestion of vetting job applicants or stifling internal debate on the $600m water storage project.

Mr Wynands said when council staff asked for his opinion on the dam in a job interview he replied he thought it was not economically viable or environmentally sustainable.

He told them he did not think it was an issue as the job was not directly involved with the dam.

But Mr Wynands said in a phone debriefing with a manager about why he did not get the job, it became apparent his attitude to the dam was a major factor.

"He finished off by saying it was too politically sensitive for me to work for the council, relating to the dam issue," said Mr Wynands.

Mr Wynands said he spoke of his experience at a public meeting on the dam recently, after he realised there was strong public opposition to its viability and lack of transparency.

Afterwards, two people told him they and many others had been forced out of council because of their views on the dam, but that they had signed confidentiality agreements over the details.

The proposed Ruataniwha Dam would be built on this site in Hawke's Bay.

The proposed Ruataniwha Dam would be built on this site in Hawke's Bay. Photo: RNZ / Peter Fowler

"Once I found that out, I realised that I needed to say something because it was bigger than what just happened to me and the integrity of my interview. It was something that had affected a lot of people and isn't going to go away unless it's dealt with," he said.

"One of the people that came up to me afterwards and said they lost their job told me that there was a culture of fear and intimidation at the council."

Radio New Zealand has spoken to three people who said they had confidential settlements with the council after they raised concerns over water management.

Hawke's Bay Regional Council interim chief executive Liz Lambert said there had been only two confidential settlements in the past six years, neither related to the dam.

She said the council asked job applicants about a wide range of council activities to see what homework they had done.

"But certainly for a number of them in recent years the dam, because of its national profile, has been raised in interviews but it's most certainly not a vetting tool," she said.

Ms Lambert was unsure why a manager had told Mr Wynands it was too politically sensitive for him to work at the council because of his views opposing the dam.

"But when we ask people their opinions, I guess there's a level to which a person, when they are acting as a staff member of the Hawke's Bay Regional Council, has to be circumspect no matter what their views and no matter what the issue," she said.

Ms Lambert rejected assertions there was a culture of fear and intimidation at the council.

She said she was not aware of any council staff members who had raised any concerns about the Ruataniwha Dam.

Massey University Local Government expert, associate professor Christine Cheyne, said the role of council chief executives was to impliment policy from elected members.

"But it is also their responsibility to give independent advice and to give free and frank advice, and so there should be critique, contestability and debate," she said.

Christine Cheyne said it would be unhealthy if any public sector organisation was vetting potential staff members views on political issues.

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