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Independent review addresses dysfunction at Gore District Council

Apr 19, 2023

Gore District Council has been paralysed for months due to the ructions in the organisation, chief executive Stephen Parry says.

Yesterday, the council met publicly for the first time since RNZ revealed late last month that Parry and Gore mayor Ben Bell are no longer on speaking terms.

During the meeting the council agreed to initiate an independent review into the dysfunction at the council so solutions to restore confidence in the body could be brought to councillors.

The council also moved to formalise two measures it had taken during a behind-closed-doors meeting on 28 March - appointing an intermediary to act as a go-between for Parry and Bell; and removing Bell from the committee which oversees the chief executive's performance.

But the young mayor protested the latter.

"You can't actually do that - under section 41 (a) 5 of the Local Government Act 2002, it states a mayor is a member of each committee of a territorial authority. So while I can be removed, I'm still technically a member of that committee, as I am a member of all committees," Bell told his councillors, just as they were to vote to formalise removing him from the chief executive appraisal committee.

Parry told the meeting the council's lawyer had verbally confirmed it was possible to remove the mayor from a committee, but the council elected to seek further legal guidance.

It prompted councillor Richard McPhail - who would act as the intermediary between the mayor and chief executive going forward - to question: "Your worship, do you wish to remain on the committee?".

"By virtue of the Act councillor, I am still on the committee," Bell responded.

"The question is for your worship - do you wish to remain there or do you wish to remove yourself?" McPhail pushed.

"Whether I wish to remove myself or stay on, I'm by virtue a member of that committee regardless," Bell said.

It was the first moment of tension between the councillors.

It came almost an hour into the meeting, which had started cordially with Parry asking the room to stand and acknowledge the entrance of the mayor into the council chambers.

Even as the council discussed the first contentious matter of the meeting - the call from deputy mayor Keith Hovell for an independent review - frustrations were not directed at each other.

"Hanging over me is a cloud of sadness and frustration," Hovell said.

"Sadness that we have an empty chair over here, where Bret Highsted - a councillor who served many years, who served this community extremely well and he will be missed. Frustration because of the unrelenting desire of the press and others to search out what they see as a good story.

"My work environment and the environment of staff as well, I'm sure, is full of distractions and stress."

Hovell's notice of motion calling for a review was signed by eight of the other nine councillors as well.

Bell raised the fact he had not been alerted to the motion or offered a chance to sign it, however, he supported it.

As did the only other councillor whose signature was not attached - Robert McKenzie.

The call for an independent review arose after details from last month's behind-closed-doors meeting were leaked to RNZ and Stuff.

At the 28 March meeting, councillors learned Parry and Bell had attended mediation in December, but the relationship had broken down and they were no longer on speaking terms.

As the council discussed formalising the appointment of McPhail as the intermediary between the pair, Parry spoke about the impact of the fractured relationship on the council.

"Unfortunately there's been long delays in having things signed off ... so that's why I wanted an intermediary to quickly get things signed off and keep things moving.

"This council has been really paralysed with trying to make any kind of progress over the past six months."

McPhail would now be authorised to approve the chief executive's credit card statements and annual leave, and act as an authorised signatory to legal documents including those executed with the council's common seal, in the place of the mayor.

But Bell pushed back again.

"I don't think any document that I have meant to sign has had to come back to council to be signed, so I don't see the need for it but that is the council's decision," he said.

Following the meeting Bell and Parry spoke to the media about the situation.

When asked if Bell agreed with Parry's assessment that the council was paralysed, he responded: "No I don't".

When asked if he would elaborate further, he said: "No I would not".

Despite the issues, Bell believed the council was heading in the right direction.

"There's been a resolution passed this evening that there will be a review in place which will hopefully give us some outcomes of where to from here. In the meantime, there is an intermediary in place who will keep the relationship stable so the council can function.

"I hope that the recommendations that are passed today give the community some reassurance that there's a review being done and we're trying to find a way forward."

Bell said he believed he still had the confidence of the community, his council, and the council staff - and he had no intention of resigning.

Parry said he also supported the review.

"Extreme circumstances sometimes call for extreme measures and under any kind of independent assessment you'd have to say council has struggled quite majorly in the last six months."

Parry lauded staff and said the fallout of the fractious council term had, so far, not impacted on the delivery of council services to ratepayers and the community.

However, that would not remain true indefinitely.

"If the council hadn't done what it's done tonight in seeking an independent review, I think people can see strong parallels with other communities where Wellington intervention has occurred and I don't think anyone around the council table wants that.

"This is a cry for help politically and hopefully that help will come, but also the messages that need to be heeded are heeded and some corrective measures taken."

Parry was frank in assessing his relationship with Bell as "very strained".

"Trust has eroded significantly, and there's been a leak of the council meeting, and my privacy has been egregiously breached, so there are some big steps forward to navigate. But never say never, but the intermediary was a necessary step in my view."

The two men would head to the Local Government New Zealand Conference together in July, but Parry was doubtful it would mark a fresh start.

"I think that's a tad optimistic, but we'll see," he said.

Main image: Gore mayor Ben Bell. 

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