Back from holiday: QLDC boss Theelen returns to a weakened leadership position

by Peter Newport - Oct 08, 2023


It’s likely that Queenstown Lakes District Council CEO Mike Theelen will be full of beans when he gets back to his desk tomorrow morning (October 9th) and swaps four weeks in the European sunshine for his previously secure $415,321 job heading our local council, that’s up 8% on last year. We say “previously secure” for many good reasons that Mr Theelen himself may not yet be fully aware of.

Councillor Gladding - not alone anymore

It’s not just the storm damage or the cyrpto outbreak that may darken Mr Theelen’s Monday. It’s a steady stream of alarming information from elected councillors that they are being kept in the dark and not even sure what their role is.

To date Mr Theelen has had a good grip on this “problem”. A litany of advice to councillors from him over the past few years has focussed on “thank the staff”, “be kind to the staff” and “don’t rock the boat.” That’s recently been turned up a notch to a suggestion from the CEO’s office that the mental health of the staff is at risk if they are challenged by councillors and even some strong hints that the CEO may consider a personal grievance case against councillors if they make his job too hard by asking tough questions or requesting information.

Crux has known for years that higher profile councillors like Niki Gladding have had to use official information legislation (LGOIMA) to obtain information from their own council but that has often been characterised by Theelen as handling something of a nuisance in the ranks of elected members.

The treatment of councillor Gladding by mayors Boult and Lewers, as well as CEO Theelen, has often come close to bullying with their ill-disguised frustration with her questions and challenges. And that’s being polite and diplomatic about what Councillor Gladding has actually been through.

But now councillor Gladding is not alone.

Crux is aware of six councillors (that’s 50% of our elected members) who are uncomfortable with the withholding of information from them by CEO Theelen and his staff.

Some have told Crux the only reason they are not resigning is that it will cost ratepayers $60,000 for a by-election.

But as the public alarm at the crypto outbreak and storm damage turns fully on the QLDC things could get a lot worse for Mr Theelen, very quickly, and for two very clear reasons.

Firstly, it appears that QLDC staff are refusing to reveal resource consent conditions linked to Skyline Enterprises to elected councillors. Councillor Gladding has been told to file an LGOIMA request to obtain this information. These conditions should be on the council’s eDocs system anyway, for everyone to see.

Reavers Lane houses were extensively damaged by Skyline construction run off

Such a refusal strongly suggests that the council, and mayor Lewers as a trained engineer, may have something significant to hide around the fact that Skyline has reluctantly admitted, after a Crux investigation, that it was their construction rubble that was responsible for extensive damage to houses in Reavers Lane during recent flooding.

Lives could have been lost.

Richard Thomas - a key player in the election campaign for Mayor Lewers and a director of Skyline Enterprises

Skyline Enterprises director Richard Thomas was a key figure in the private business group that backed Glyn Lewers recent mayoral election campaign along with high profile Boult/Lewers supporter Celia Crosbie who runs a Wānaka PR company, Scope Media. Mr Thomas has past or present links to Destination Queenstown and the Queenstown Chamber of Commerce as well as the Mountain Scene local newspaper.

Secondly, it is clear that Mr Theelen is responsible for prioritising massive financial support for property developers/big business ahead of a clean and safe water supply for the community. Lakeview (with little to no affordable housing) , the Arterial “road to nowhere” and the almost pointless CBD “cosmetic upgrade” as well as the Ladies Mile toxic house have together cost ratepayers in excess of $200 million.

Crux now understands that another project, one over which CEO Theelen has sole delegated authority, in Kingston may be suffering a problem in the $30 million zone. We'll have coverage of this project later in the week.

Add to that the fact that QLDC has over $20 million debt above this year’s forecast and $163 million of budgeted revenue linked to a bed tax that probably won’t happen, plus the fact that the council’s debt ceiling drops by 5% each year, set by a central regulator, until 2026 - and we have a clear picture that the QLDC debt limit will be exceeded and require a drastic, probably external, response.

And of course, the straw that may break the camel’s back, the cost of complying with overdue water treatment work that could run well towards $100 million as it’s not just the Two Mile pumping station that eventually will need a $30 million protozoa barrier but Wānaka and other locations as well.

All of which sits, rightfully, on Mr Theelen’s desk. Along with an annual salary bill for 600 staff, up from 300 just a few years ago, and the army of QLDC external consultants that Crux has written so much about.

Mr Theelen clearly has an appetite for power and control. That’s to be expected from a strong CEO. But with that power and control comes a crushing responsibility.

We say “crushing” with considerable thought. When a publicly funded Chief executive decides to take sole charge of very large $1 billion projects, like Lakeview, that are in effect speculative and not core to the council’s main job to keep the community safe and well serviced with essential infrastructure, then their responsibility goes up in direct proportion to those risks.

Mr Theelen has gambled and lost on so many fronts it starts to look like those six councillors might as well all resign in the absence of any change in the CEO’s office. $60,000 for a by-election looks like a bargain compared to the titanic costs Mr Theelen has inflicted on this relatively small ratepayer base.

In any other environment to our broken local government model, Mr Theelen would have been gone years ago. And the Southern Lakes might have had clean water, transparent democracy and decent infrastructure with no crippling debt.

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