Te Tii Waitangi Marae has been plagued with internal conflict and has been before the Māori Land Court for 20 years. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The performance of trustees and administrators at one of the country’s most iconic marae has been under the microscope, with a Māori Land Court judge formally putting trustees on notice.
Te Tii Waitangi Marae’s board of trustees has been before the land court for the past 20 years as several attempts to rectify administration processes were undertaken.
The marae charter was established in 1994 with rules around the election and appointment of trustees, which became consistently controversial among beneficiaries over the years.
The marae charter states: “There will be one nominated trustee per whānau and trustees elected by their whānau can only be removed by their whānau.” It’s a sticking point that has driven beneficiaries to file multiple applications over the years to have trustees removed.
In 2001, Judge Andrew Spencer removed all trustees due to dysfunction and no financial accountability. He appointed two professional trustees and six additional ones on an interim basis.
For the next 13 years, Judge Spencer ordered, appointed and removed interim trustees, none of whom were endorsed by any meetings of beneficiaries.
In 2015, Judge David Ambler stepped in, bringing an end to the interim trusteeship.
Judge Ambler directed an annual meeting, appointed 10 new trustees and implemented a three-yearly rotation system to ensure fairness was maintained.
He also brought in a professional accountant to overhaul the finances, train trustees in financial acumen and establish a robust financial system.
After Judge Ambler’s death in 2017, Judge Miharo Armstrong took over the matter and, at the request of the marae, reduced the number of trustees to seven.
He was also advised by the accountant that trustees were on track and had implemented all financial recommendations.
However, between 2018 and 2021 the marae failed to complete standard requirements again, with no annual meetings or trustee rotations, and found itself back before an unimpressed Judge Armstrong.
“I expressed concern that financial accounts had not been produced, AGMs had not been held, elections had not been conducted and a new charter for the marae had appeared on the charities register that had not been approved by the beneficiaries,” Judge Armstrong’s direction said.
An annual meeting was set down for December 2021 at the direction of the judge and three existing trustees were re-elected: Messrs Apiata, Taituha and Taurua.
In June 2023, applications were heard from beneficiaries objecting to the re-election of the three trustees, claiming they had failed to carry out their obligations in the previous term and seeking an independent trustee, which Judge Armstrong declined.
“The trustees are collectively responsible for administering the marae. They must take collective responsibility when they do not do so,” the judge said.
Although the trust managed to bring its auditing up to date in 2021 and call a successful annual meeting, Judge Armstrong was concerned about their prior lack of action.
“If this was the first time such concerns had arisen, I may have been more relaxed about whether further court intervention was required. Sadly, it is not.
“Failing to hold AGMs, failing to produce accounts, and failing to conduct proper elections were also the subject of proceedings before Judge Spencer and Judge Ambler.
“In the 2015 decision, Judge Ambler set out the rotation process the trustees were required to observe. Despite that, the trustees have been unable to fulfil one full rotation cycle. This was only completed last year at a court-directed AGM,” Judge Armstrong said in his decision.
He granted an order for Isaiah Apiata, Ngati Kawa Taituha, Saku Taurua, Ngatirangi Tawhiao, Susan Apiata, Esme Sherwin and Maryanne Baker as the new board of trustees, directed a charter review and set a new rotation cycle up until 2025.
“I am going to maintain oversight of this trust … I put all trustees on notice that I will continue to monitor progress with the administration of the marae. I expect the trustees to meet their obligations by holding the AGM each year, conducting elections and producing accounts.”
Taituha, the marae chair, told NZME the board welcomed Judge Armstrong’s decision and had since appointed an executive committee and set an annual meeting for December.
“Our marae is no stranger to controversy and that was pointed out clearly in the MLC decision. Waitangi is the political epicentre for the entire Māori nation.”
“Our marae is a national icon and holds mana and prestige, so I am hardly surprised that many robust discussions that have taken place in the past have pushed both participant and idle observer to the absolute limit of their mental capacity.”
He said the difficulties with the marae charter were ensuring it aligned with the charitable trust deed and gaining high levels of participation from whānau in the process.
“This requires high-calibre legal minds and those knowledgable in tikanga to get this over the line … We believe this charter review process must be driven by our beneficiaries.
“We are extremely fortunate and blessed to have a deep talent pool and diverse range of skills within our new marae board … which we’ll need if we are going to tackle some of the big action tasks ahead. All in all, the future is bright.”
Judge Armstrong will be provided with an update in December.
Note: The original article stated Esme Sherwin was a re-elected trustee however this was incorrect. Esme Sherwin was elected as a new trustee and we apologise for this error.
Shannon Pitman is a Whangārei-based reporter for Open Justice covering courts in the Te Tai Tokerau region. She is of Ngāpuhi/Ngātiwai/Ngāti Pūkenga descent and has worked freelance in digital media for the past five years. She joined NZME in 2023.