What the hell's going on in Cromwell?
Cromwell journalist Susan Curran looks at the extraordinary events surrounding an unseemly scrap between Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan and members of the Cromwell Community Board. What does it all mean? This is Susan's personal perspective - both as a journalist and as a resident.
It appears as though nothing has changed at the Cromwell Community Board.
However, if it wasn’t for more than a week of almost one-sided commentary in local media by the Mayor, we may not have known to expect any change at our community board.
It was the Mayor who told us that four members of the board had taken action to remove the chair of the board.
He was quoted as describing this action by the majority of the community board as completely unjustified, irresponsible, disappointing and unfair.
He identified the four.
He said that Councillor Shirley Calvert, one of the four, "made it plain" to him that she wanted to be the chair even though, he thought, one of the complaints was that a councillor should not be chair as they could be torn between their duty to the whole of Central Otago and their duty to the people of the Cromwell ward.
The Mayor’s quoted remark could have caused us, the people of the district, to form the impression that this was Councillor Calvert’s way of making a grab for the chairmanship. Although some readers might have kept an open mind as "made it plain" is not the same as "said".
The Mayor was also quoted as saying that the move was unfair to the residents of Cromwell because it could invite the scrutiny of the relevant authorities, including the Minister for Local Government.
Since when was scrutiny contrary to the community’s interest?
The four stayed silent.
The Mayor criticised them for their silence and for refusing to give their reasons for wanting to change their chair. He also criticised their timing, saying they could wait for the local government elections towards the end of next year, and because Cromwell is currently working on a town masterplan. Though he did not explain why they should wait, or what effect their action could have on the masterplan.
Apparently wanting to leave no potential points in doubt, the Mayor was quoted as praising the current chair in the most glowing terms.
Deputy Mayor Neil Gillespie is a person "of the highest integrity" with "significant" expertise in community and local government.
The two other members of the board were quoted in media as being surprised by the actions of the other four. The deputy chair defended Councillor Gillespie and wondered what "compelling reasons" there were for his removal.
The only word (up to time of writing) from "the four" contained no criticism or heat. It came several days after the Mayor started criticising them in the media. They did not respond to the Mayor’s reported remarks. They said "there is an opportunity for succession planning" and that "in Neil we have an experienced chair who can be a helpful mentor to the board".
In the atmosphere created by the Mayor’s flood of critical commentary, some in the community might have thought the four should speak out, give their reasons, tell us what on earth is going on!
Or the community may have wondered what the chair had done to cause the majority of the members of the community board to want a new chair. Why the Mayor was trying to stop them? Or why the Mayor seemed so invested in keeping the current chair in the role?
These are perfectly valid questions. Comments on Facebook could lead some to think that no one is asking these questions. But they are.
People are also expressing their admiration for the four, for sticking to a principled position by not saying anything more than they have. Some have said they are shocked at the public criticism of them and hope they are not hurt or upset by it. Some say they are shocked at the Mayor’s attempts to push back a democratic majority view.
For the record, procedures around local government meetings, including community board meetings, allow the public to be excluded to enable "free and frank discussion" on sensitive matters. It does not automatically require a public airing. It is not weirdly secretive or somehow undemocratic. These are the rules. It is also not necessary for a Mayor to be involved in the process.
Also for the record, if Councillor Gillespie lost the "job" of board chair, he would still have plenty of others. As the CODC website details, his is on six other council committees and panels and of course he is deputy mayor. He’s been on the community board for 20 years, a councillor for 17 years and deputy mayor for eight years. He has contested only two elections. The one that made him a councillor in 2001 and another in 2013. He did not have to stand in the other four elections because only enough people stood to take the three positions in the Cromwell ward. Those are the rules.
Then today came the public statement of the council’s CEO Ms Sanchia Jacobs who says it is all over. The procedure triggered by the four has been stopped by them. There had been "unintended consequences" which included the high level of media interest and concern in the community, she said.
After discussions with "the four" she could assure the community that they acted to make sure "the board was best placed to make the kinds of decisions Cromwell required to succeed into the future". Sounds remarkably like the "succession planning" the four referred to in their only public comment.
It does not, however, sound like the end. If you put it all together - what the Mayor has said, the little that "the four" have said and the CEO’s remarks - what it does sound like is that the Mayor has got what he wanted. Could that be a community board that does what he wants?
We, the community they are all serving, can only wonder what would cause four people to take the step they did and then be the target of, and take so much, public criticism without fighting back.
This is not Wellington or Canberra or Washington DC. We do not expect our councillors and other local office holders to be tough nuts. We expect them to be what they are – one of us.
Crux welcomes a written response from Mayor Tim Cadogan that we will publish in reply to Susan Curran's opinion article. We'd also love to hear from the Cromwell Four as to what this is all about.