Transparency needed on Sheffield's departure

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 March, 2011, 12:00am

The government says it is eager to get on with the West Kowloon Cultural District project - as it should be after 12 years of talk and planning and not much motion. In a recent commentary in this newspaper, board chairman and Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen added urgency, relating public opinion that there should be 'no more dithering' and that it was time to move 'full steam ahead'. Moving ahead seems like an excellent idea after yet more embarrassment with former chief executive Graham Sheffield leaving abruptly for an unexplained serious illness, and within weeks starting a new, equally high-pressure job. But we should equally not just brush the past aside as well. We need to answer questions concerning his resignation.

Sheffield was, after all, the second chief of the arts hub to step down for personal reasons, quitting on January 7 after only five months in the job. His predecessor, Angus Cheng Siu-chuen, held the post for less than two weeks. Two resignations in such circumstances could be put down to coincidence, bad luck or the selection panel making poor choices. Then again, it could be to do with the way the project is being run, a clash of personality with fellow employees or board members or unfavourable working conditions. Maybe it is a problem with Hong Kong, like air pollution.

We do not know the answers - and that is precisely why Tang has to clear up any doubts. The HK$21 billion project has been fraught with controversy from the time it was announced and has stumbled from one setback to another. It was foisted on Hong Kong with little discussion and there has been a lack of transparency throughout. If it is going to be of worth to the community, it has to be well managed.

Above all else that means authorities being open and honest to the people who are paying for it - the citizens of Hong Kong. The manner in which Sheffield departed raises doubts about whether those obligations are being met. He has not made a public statement or been available for media interviews. His apparently being in such poor health that he had to quit, and then miraculously getting better to the point that within a month he could be named as the British Council's new arts director in London requires explanation.

Then there are the conflicting dates and details: the deadline for applications for the council's job closing on December 3, 12 days before he apparently expressed a wish to quit. He went on holiday to his native England over Christmas and has stayed there. Those circumstances do not rest easily with the three letters the board has since received from his doctor, expressing ever-greater urgency as to why he should not return. In one, the doctor said Sheffield was 'unfit to travel to Hong Kong alone'.

Despite having signed a three-year contract, Sheffield was allowed to leave without paying compensation and did not have to give three months' notice. Applications for a successor have already closed and a new choice will be made within six to nine months. We may well have high-calibre people lining up to take the job. But it helps them, and us, if there is much more clarity about what went wrong the first two times around. And it could do much to restore the project's image and reputation.

A new design for the arts hub will be chosen by the end of the month. That will offer a goal to work towards. But piquing public interest and providing stability will only come about with strong leadership. We need to get to the bottom of Sheffield's departure and be much more transparent about it.