17 Mar 2010

Museum chief's early departure 'inevitable'

5:41 pm on 17 March 2010

The former director of Auckland War Memorial Museum says the early departure of chief executive Vanda Vitali was inevitable.

Dr Vitali resigned on Tuesday, ending a controversial tenure during which she became involved in disputes with war veterans and the family of Sir Edmund Hillary.

Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey has defended her record, saying the museum's board should be sacked over her departure.

But former director Rodney Wilson says the board should remain.

Mr Wilson says Dr Vitali's problems started early when she undertook a restructuring that left 46 people without their jobs.

He says many more people left voluntarily and the problems seemed to snowball from there.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the museum's board said Dr Vitali resigned by mutual agreement.

Dr Vitali was the first woman to be appointed as director of the museum and took up her role in September 2007.

Her time as director was marred by controversy, including when plans to install a bronze memorial sculpture honouring veterans of the World War II Bomber Command were withdrawn on the eve of Anzac Day in 2008.

Dr Vitali and the museum engaged in a public battle with the family of Sir Edmund Hillary in 2009 over articles and photographs bequeathed to the museum.

Mr Harvey says he and the other mayors in Auckland tried to get the board to sort the dispute with Dr Vitali last year.

He says she has done an extraordinarily good job with the museum, and it was a case of a dysfunctional board that couldn't cope with a high-profile director.

Mr Harvey says he'll raise the issue of getting rid of the board members at the next mayoral forum and is suggesting a commissioner be appointed until the super-city council structure is up and running.

The mayor says some very high-profile lawyers have been involved in the dispute, so it will be an expensive goodbye for the ratepayers of Auckland.

But the president of the Auckland Museum Institute, which appointed four members of the board, says the board is competent, experienced and well balanced.

Rae Nield says Mr Harvey does not have a detailed knowledge of the workings of the board.

Support voiced for Dr Vitali

Ngati Whatua Runanga chairperson Naida Glavish defended Dr Vitali's management style and said her critics judged her too harshly.

Ms Glavish says the museum has undergone significant change for the better in the past three years under Dr Vitali, and she does not believe the controversy surrounding the director was insurmountable.

Auckland District RSA president Gary Walker says despite the problems, he was not critical of Dr Vitali's management style, and his dealings with her were amiable.

In the statement on Tuesday, Dr Vitali said she was very proud of what she had achieved during the past three years but the board's vision and hers were diverging.

Dr Vitali's lawyer, John Haigh QC, says there were many legal discussions before her resignation.

He would not comment on whether she had received a golden handshake.