Row over Penrhyn job continues

Friday November 25, 2016 Written by Published in Outer Islands

The Penrhyn Island Council says it has fired its executive officer but the official denies this, saying she will continue in the position until a replacement is appointed.

 

According to the council, Finance Officer Tamu Tapaitau was given the additional responsibility of serving as acting executive officer back in August.

Office of the Prime Minister chief of staff Liz Wright-Koteka has confirmed that Vaine Wichman, who held the post for a full four-year term doesn’t have a formal contract. The Tongareva (Penrhyn) Island Council wants the position re-advertised as quickly as possible.

Mayor Rio Teika and councillors say they want island government officials who will live on Penrhyn, not elsewhere in the Cook Islands. Councillors complain that Wichman spends more time in Rarotonga than on Tongareva.

Versions of Wichman’s status differ between the Island Council, the Office of the Prime Minister which oversees all outer islands governments and the government official who was highly favoured for the position by central government.

Things got further complicated when the mayor’s wife became ill and had to be transferred to to Rarotonga and then New Zealand for treatment. This required Rio Teika to be absent from the northern island.

Wright-Koteka claims while Teika was absent from Tongareva, Wichman’s reappointment was finalised with the deputy mayor presiding over the meeting. But the Abela-prompted reappointment isn’t legitimate as it requires authorisation by the mayor and this never happened.

Although bereft of a contract and formally sidelined by the island council last week, Wichman continues to sign off on emailed correspondence as Tongareva executive officer. Wright-Koteka says the Abela-chaired council meeting also gave Wichman the unprecedented advantage of being able to change her location of work from Tongareva “to anywhere in the Cook Islands.” Again, this would not be legitimate approval as it wasn’t sanctioned by the mayor.

Wright-Koteka concedes that the Office of the PM couldn’t accept the Abela reinstatement without the input of the mayor (as required by the Local Government Act). The Act also states that the executive officer is accountable to and subject to the lawful direction of the mayor for the term of employment. Teika and councillor Teremoana Viniki and others on the nothernmost island say this hasn’t always been the case and cooperation from Wichman on some Tongareva matters has been a prickly issue.

Wright-Koteka says Teika “apparently” signed a letter to confirm Wichman’s contract but the OPM has never received this letter, “nor any other advice from the mayor on this position,” so there has been no movement to finalise the contract.

Teika and councillors say what they did do was to inform central government back in August that they wished for the position to be re-advertised to hopefully attract more applicants (there were just two). Instead Wichman returned to the island in September and again took charge, they say.

Council members claim they were never given the opportunity to make the final decision, as is their statutory role, on Wichman’s appointment. Wright-Koteka disagrees, saying “we informed the mayor in writing and verbally of the outcome of the recruitment process, including our own observations.”

“The OPM has never made the final decision, this is why the process has dragged on because the Konisara (Council) including the mayor did not confirm their candidate. To this day, OPM maintains that there is no written contract with Vaine (Wichman) and we were awaiting the decision of the mayor and council, which we have now received.”

But Wichman thinks otherwise, believing herself to still be the Tongareva executive officer, and says she will remain in the position, “until the position is re-advertised and there is an appointment.”

She has confirmed that she will be reapplying for the position and says it’s not true that councillors aren’t happy with her absences from Tongareva, claiming to have the signed letter changing her location of work from Tongareva to the Cook Islands. It is this letter that Wright-Koteka says has yet to materialise.

Wichman also denies the council’s claims about her failure to consult with them or to be accountable and subject to the direction of the mayor.

Asked if she believed the mayor and councillors were not speaking the truth as it contradicted what she had said, Wichman responded, “the mayor and members are aware of the truth.”

“I have never received any negative feedback from any of the councillors, mayor included.... my mayor and island councillors are telling the truth.”

“I am still EO until the advertised position is finalised by appointing someone.”

Wichman says that in the meantime, she will continue to administer the funds and resources of Tongareva.

Public Expenditure Review Committee chairman Geoff Stoddart confirmed an investigation into the Penrhyn Island government administration’s finances was done in September and October this year. He says a report was completed, and this may get presented at a December parliament sitting, if one is held.

Wichman advised the council via email that she intended to be away from Tongareva until January 27, 2017 with Taui Niukore the manager of Infrastructure and Climate Change. Wichman listed numerous tasks that she planned to undertake while away from Tongareva, including finalising the Omoka/Te Tautua wharf project, consulting with Crown Law and preparing the 2017/18 budget

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