A committee of Wellington leaders is “toothless” in terms of holding Wellington Water accountable for the fluoride failure, says the deputy chairperson.
It’s now been over a year since water was fluoridated for Upper Hutt, Porirua, and the western suburbs of Wellington, and it’s been eight months for the rest of Wellington.
An independent inquiry found that Wellington Water, due to a range of systemic issues, did not view fluoridation as important, leading to a 10-month delay in the public finding out their water was not fluoridated.
Back in March the chairperson of the Wellington Water committee, Hutt City mayor Campbell Barry, said the committee was “holding their feet to the fire” over the failure. Leaders from each of the six councils which own Wellington Water sit on the committee.
Upper Hutt mayor Wayne Guppy, the deputy chairperson of the Wellington Water committee, said the committee was not effective. “The committee is toothless. In my view we can’t hold Wellington Water to account effectively as councils. We’re not getting value for money – it’s not working and it hasn’t worked in a while.”
In the wake of an inquiry into fluoridation which identified several failings and cultural problems at the water entity, the Wellington Water board is confident it has made enough changes to move forward, but there’s a sense among the region’s leaders that this failure is deeper than just fluoride.
“In five years, will there be another issue that we don’t know about because there’s no alarm bell?” wondered Greater Wellington chairperson Daran Ponter.
The regional council owns the water treatment plants where Wellington Water turned off fluoridation due to deteriorating machinery, not telling the regional council for 10 months. The inquiry report, released last week, indicated there were issues with fluoridation at the plants going back six years.
Ponter has concerns that the issues are broader than just fluoride. “It’s also about the culture, systems, and processes,” he said.
No one has resigned over the failure to fluoridate. “The inquiry was not about apportioning blame,” said the board’s chairperson, Lynda Carroll. “The board and management teams have accepted collective accountability.”
But the inquiry had raised “performance issues” which would be addressed through internal processes, she said.
The regional council did not want to rush into a decision about anyone needing to resign, Ponter said. That’s “something to work through”, once they had had time to consider whether it was a governance and management issue or a systemic one.
“It’s easy to say heads should roll, here’s a scapegoat, etcetera. I think at this point there’s a general view that we simply need to learn from this in relation to other things. What’s more important is the process to get fluoride back into the water.”
Wellington Water is planning to have fluoride back in the water, through temporary facilities housed in shipping containers, by September this year.
Independent inquiry into Wellington’s water fluoridation
Wellington Water chair Lynda Carroll announces an independent inquiry into the fluoridation of water, and says Wellington’s water supply has not been fluoridated for up to ten months.
Wellington mayor Andy Foster was “really alarmed” at the findings about asset management, showing that fluoridation equipment at the plants had been slowly becoming less effective over the past six years.
“Something culturally needs to change so that problems are brought up the chain at an earlier opportunity,” he said.
The findings showed that no one had their eye on the ball in terms of fluoride, in terms of all the councils as well as Wellington Water. He would not comment on whether someone needed to resign over the failure.
Porirua mayor Anita Baker viewed the failure as collective. “We all got a slap on the wrist from the report and we deserved it,” she said. The councils and the Ministry of Health both failed to ask the right questions about fluoride – Baker said Porirua City Council accepted its role in that too.
She didn’t think anyone needed to resign. “I don’t think the findings point to any one individual. Often we say the buck stops with the CEO, but here it was a whole system failure. If you chop off the CE that doesn’t help.”
Barry, who chairs the Wellington Water Committee, said they had made their expectations very clear to the organisation. “When you say you’re going to do something, like fluoridate the water, you do it properly. And if there is an issue, you have the processes in place to communicate and escalate that issue appropriately.”
On whether anyone should resign in the wake of the failure to fluoridate, he said it was not a matter for the committee to consider. “A decision of that nature would sit with the Board.”
Carroll was confident Wellington Water had addressed the failures identified in the inquiry. “From a systems point of view, management has introduced a new assurance framework to make sure that we’re safely and effectively fluoridating drinking water, and the organisation is working up a programme to address the risk identification, process, and communications issues raised by the inquiry.”