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The story behind Tongareva ‘blowout’

Tuesday July 04, 2017 Written by Published in Tropical Chronicles
The story behind Tongareva ‘blowout’

Being Tongareva-born, I have an ongoing interest in the affairs of the island.

 

In this instance, the recent story in CI News about a blowout of the Tongareva (Penrhyn) Island budget was of no surprise to me. In fact it compelled me to tell the fuller story and update readers on the latest developments.

The cause of the Penrhyn budget blowout was the lax application of rules and poor monitoring by the government of the island’s spending activities.

Signs of trouble were seen as far back as 2012 and 2013 when the island’s current MP, Willie John, was the island’s top administrator. As executive officer, John spend a whole year living in Rarotonga after he was appointed and during that time he was being paid in full while an inexperienced acting executive looked after the island’s finances.

As far as I know, the expectation is that once appointed into that position, you must relocate to the island as did every other executive officer appointed anywhere in the outer islands. It was claimed that this requirement was not written in his contract. John also went on a church and personal trip to Korea and Australia, and it has been alleged he was on full pay. 

Concerned people on the island asked me to intervene and I lodged a complaint to the relevant government agencies, in particular the Office of the Prime Minister, the Public Service Commissioner’s Office and the Ministry of Finance about these situations. But essentially, nothing was done.

In 2015, I filed a complaint to PERCA who then proceeded to investigate irregularities with Penrhyn’s finances. These irregularities were also picked by audits done by the Audit Office. Hence we have the report just released for public reading after it was tabled and read in Parliament in this current sitting.

In fact, the report was completed in 2016. It was made available to the prime minister and Cabinet by the chairman of PERCA. But it was never released to the public although CI News published several letters to the editor about the matter.

This is the type of inconvenience and non-accountability the public gets when Parliament does not sit regularly. We get delayed discovery of these discrepancies regarding the spending of public funds almost a year later. When Vaine Wichman was appointed as the new executive officer succeeding Willie John, who had resigned to contest the 2014 elections, her propensity to live in Rarotonga for the majority of time and not on the island while on contract was, I believe, simply following the practice set by her predecessor.

This requirement was soon written into the last contract Wichman signed. Being hands-on with management is a duty tasked to the executive officer under the Island Government Act 2013. Executive officers were paid a healthy salary to do such job while a proxy on the island was actually doing it.

Because of the poor scrutiny, Tongareva’s administration was vulnerable and susceptible to abuse and political manipulation. New workers on salaries and wages that were not budgeted for were appointed to advance some people’s political ambitions.

Workers were from one family with a large number of voters and were allegedly paid higher wages than the long term workers. Strong supporters of the Opposition were demoted and shifted to less important jobs. One was sacked when he was uncooperative. This situation continued until Wichman was sacked by the new island council and mayor. But she was not sacked because of the administration and finance oversights - instead it was because of a power struggle and different agendas. In fact, Wichman found herself fighting in conflict with the MP and mayor.

Allowing all of this to continue was irresponsible of central government. For Tongareva, the budget blowout resulted in MFEM cutting and refusing to pay bulk funding to the island, thereby hurting innocent people who had to lose their pay.

As stated in the PERCA report, attempts were made by Wichman to have the stoppage of bulk funding waived but to no avail. So is the government also ignoring similar problems with the other outer islands if such problems are widespread? I remember people from outer islands administrations being prosecuted by the law, when in fact blame could also have been pointed at the central administration.

Early this year, the job of Penrhyn chief executive was advertised as vacant. I applied. I knew I could do a better job because of my previous experience of working with Penrhyn annual financial and general reports.

I was interviewed in February and was advised informally I was the only person who had applied who met the criteria. The job was mine. The other applicant did not meet the standard. The mayor was advised of the selection committee’s recommendation. When he received it, he called meeting of the island council to confirm the appointment. I have now been waiting for six months. I have since filed a complaint of misconduct against the mayor to Bredina Drollet, Chief of Staff at the Office of the Prime Minister, and that will trigger a process of investigation by the Office of the Prime Minister. I wait for the outcome.

I just hope that this does not get turned into a political saga by the government because of my political affiliation and support for the Democratic Party. I say this because the executive officer’s job was advertised to the public at large, so selecting was on merit, not on political orientation.