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Hanging on by a thread or better than ever?

Thursday 20 January 2022 | Written by Te Tuhi Kelly | Published in Opinion


Hanging on by a thread or better than ever?
Te Tuhi Kelly. PHOTO: COOK ISLANDS NEWS/191011111

Well I hate to be proven right once again. This time the word out on the street is that the BTIB (Business Trade and Investment Board) under the management of chief executive Repeta Puna is now just hanging on by a thread, writes Te Tuhi Kelly, Leader of the Progressive Party.

More senior staff have decided enough is enough and have resigned and gone to greener pastures. Of the eleven (11) or so staff because of troubles at the mill, they are now down to about three (3) young and with very little experience being forced into providing a service at a more senior and experienced level than what they currently have and above their pay grade. Not only that, but there is also very little compliance work being provided as the compliance advisor left in December 2021, I have it on good authority that he was fed up with Repeta’s poor management style.

I have written several blogs and articles about the situation of the BTIB since Repeta took over and the demise of a government agency of such import must lie with the current Minister of the BTIB and that is Patrick Arioka on behalf of the Prime Minister Mark Brown. Arioka has been conspicuous by his absence, and we understand he has health issues. The fact is, he’s the Minister and should have had her removed for non-performance and incompetence when he took over that portfolio.

Repeta has an outstanding personal grievance case against her and the powers that be, have dragged their tails over this because it is small fry when they are dealing with bigger fish i.e., Robert Tapaitau, Nga and Diane Puna and one other and this is the kicker they know very well that she does not follow nor listen to proper employment processes. What do they do? Nothing, nada, absolutely zip and still they let her run down the BTIB to a level of confidence across the public service that was of concern even before she took over the helm.

Word is also out that the BTIB loan system is in a shamble with tens of thousands of taxpayer money paid out to locals and very little money if at all being loan repayments to the BTIB. That should be of major concern to Arioka and the Government, and to the people of the Cook Islands, but they have let things slide and roll on with the excuse it is Covid.

The exodus from the BTIB is the latest in a long line of disgruntled and unmotivated employees joining a never-ending list who are fed up and completely over the poor leadership, the immature management style and of course Repeta’s ties to the Puna family. The BTIB should have been the shining jewel in terms of its interface between those who want to invest here and those locals who want to take advantage of mutually beneficial partnering arrangements. Instead, what we do get is political jerrymandering to keep her in the role and to hell with staff relationships, to hell with other government agencies and to hell with the Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce and to crown it all off, to hell with the BTIB staff.

Who is at fault here, and yes there is always someone who is at fault for letting the BTIB get into such a parlous situation? It rests with the BTIB Minister, Patrick Arioka and up the chain to the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Mark Brown. Is Arioka just the face of the BTIB and his strings are pulled by someone with higher authority? Otherwise, Repeta Puna should have been given her marching orders months ago.

Any decent and right mined organisation who has such a high exodus of staff should and would be asking the hard question. What is happening? Why are so many people leaving? You can get away with one or two people leaving by inventing a reason why they leave but when you lose practically 100 per cent of the original staff when she first started and then replaced them with young, naïve, and inexperienced staff then Arioka should have been asking the hard questions and not taking her word as gospel.

Now he is in a situation where he must pull in Repeta Puna because it has reached such a crisis point that it cannot be ignored. Her current salary is exorbitant for the role and would be a proper salary for someone who has the requisite skills, experience, and academic qualifications for the role: she hasn’t. The writing was on the wall for all to see, but did these politicians make the right choice, I submit they did not and now the BTIB is in crisis.

I believe that they have not yet concluded negotiating an extension to her contract which is up for renewal. They would be muggins to entertain the idea of rolling her contract over. The reasons are:

•           Too high staff turnover with excuses and not plausible reasons why

•           Multiple staff leaving for greener pastures (almost 100%)

•           Incompetence

•           Serious performance issues

This then brings into question of to whom does she report, is it the BTIB Board or is it the Minister and who does the recruitment for this role. If it’s the Board then the process is quite clear, and the Board will set the salary and the performance measures to be met. If it’s the Minister, then we have a problem with a conflict of interest and we add complexity to the reporting lines and we then get the situation where the Board has no power apart from signing on the dotted line contrary to the Act.

Reply from BTIB CEO Repeta Puna

Dear Editor,

I refer to the letter (opinion column) sent by Te Tuhi Kelly to you and thank you for the opportunity to comment.

There are parts of the letter that are both defamatory and untrue. 

Fundamental to Kelly’s letter is the claim that 11, presumably senior staff, have left and now there are only three inexperienced persons engaged.  

That alleged fact is untrue. There are seven persons currently employed by the Development Investment Board, four of which are university graduates.   

Those employees have experience. Far from senior persons being replaced by junior, the opposite has occurred in some cases and the experience base has increased.

The compliance officer did not resign. He retired. His intention was to join his wife in Melbourne. Because of the lockdown he was unable to do so and was reengaged on contract. His replacement will commence work at the end of this month. He is puzzled by who may be speaking to you on his behalf.   

In respect to the grievance case the comments made are untrue. However, as Mr Kelly will appreciate, I am unable to comment further because a good employer keeps such matters private.

In respect to the loan system, some loans are in default. Given the lack of economic activity over the last two years that will come as no surprise to anyone. However, there is a review being undertaken under the auspices of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management. Again, it is inappropriate for me to comment further until that review is completed.

In respect to being unqualified, I have a Master’s degree in Public Policy and extensive experience in the public service in New Zealand and in the Cook Islands.

While Mr Kelly says that there “is a never ending list” of those “fed up” with “Repeta’s ties to the Puna family” the public will appreciate my blood and familial connections are not ones I am at liberty to determine any more than Mr Kelly can decide to change his parents. What I can say, and Mr Kelly points out obliquely at the end of his letter, is that I am appointed by, and I am responsible to, a Board. His gratuitous comments about Minister Arioka, the Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister are therefore entirely for the purposes of promoting his political agenda by diminishing the status of others rather than telling the public what he has to offer. While he is entitled to do that, I ask that he refrain from defaming private individuals in the pursuit of elevating his self-importance.

I should conclude that there is one employee I do not regret loosing, and that is Mr Kelly. 

Your sincerely,

Repeta Puna.