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Gore Council conflict: Local Government NZ aware of issues

Apr 01, 2023

Local Government New Zealand says it is "very aware" of the problems at the Gore District Council.

Last night it was revealed Gore mayor Ben Bell and the council's chief executive Stephen Parry are no longer speaking or meeting after their relationship broke down to the point another councillor had to act as intermediary between the men.

It is understood that since the election Bell and Parry have shared a frosty relationship.

RNZ has obtained emails which shows things were prickly between the pair from early in the triennium.

It ultimately resulted in the entire executive sending a letter to the mayor outlining their concerns about his unwillingness to engage with staff, misrepresenting situations, a sense of staff being set up to fail, and putting the council and staff reputations at risk.

At a behind-closed-doors extraordinary council meeting on Tuesday, councillors noted the pair had been engaged in mediation since December.

They also noted the breakdown in their relationship and voted to appoint another elected member to act as a go-between.

Bell was also removed from the committee which oversees the performance of the chief executive.

Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene said the situation in Gore had come to the body's attention.

"Obviously, we are very aware of the issues at Gore District Council and have been liaising with the mayor and CE."

LGNZ could play a bigger part in such difficulties going forward, Freeman-Greene said.

"One of Local Government NZ's important roles is to help councils when there are tricky relationship issues.

"We play a key role in developing Codes of Conducts and guidelines for councils, however, these can be blunt instruments.

"We see a huge opportunity for LGNZ to formalise its role in preventing tough relationship issues around the council table from escalating. We are in the very initial stages of developing a resolution service that allows a range of responses - for example from collegial support from peers through to facilitation. But it will require investment from councils to set this up with the right resourcing."

RNZ asked Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty what he knew of the situation at the council; whether he had any correspondence with the mayor or chief executive about the situation; whether he was concerned about the pair's working relationship; and whether he had sought or taken advice about the need for commissioners at the council.

McAnulty initially declined to comment, but a spokesperson did clarify that "the minister has not sought advice about the need for commissioners at the council".

In a joint statement last night, attributed to Gore deputy mayor Keith Hovell and the council's general manager community lifestyle services Rex Capil, the council outlined what was discussed at the meeting.

"The meeting was held in committee in accordance with the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act Section 7(2)(a) - to protect the privacy of natural persons, including that of deceased natural persons.

"The meeting was publicly notified on the Council's website Public Notice page on Thursday 23 March. It was also notified retrospectively on the Council's Noticeboard, in The Ensign, on Wednesday 29 March. These notifications are in keeping with the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

"The extraordinary meeting was called by Gore District mayor Ben Bell. All councillors were present at the meeting, which deputy mayor Cr Keith Hovell chaired.

"Both the mayor and chief executive Stephen Parry were given the opportunity to address the meeting and answer questions from councillors separately.

"At no point during the meeting was there a vote of no confidence in the mayor."

No councillors contacted by RNZ were willing to discuss what took place during the meeting.

Hovell did clarify that Bell was removed from the council's Chief Executive Appraisal Committee and Councillor Bronwyn Reid appointed in his place.

RNZ understood there was discussion at the meeting of a vote of no confidence in Bell.

Capil emailed RNZ to say "no motion was tabled or discussed".

When asked if such a motion had been raised or discussed, Hovell said "no comment to that one".

RNZ was unable to contact Bell or Parry.

There were claims of dirty politics arising during the election campaign and since the election the council had been beset by controversies.

Bell's initial choice as deputy mayor - Stewart MacDonell - was removed after a majority of councillors signed a letter calling for him to go.

That led to the appointment of Hovell with the unanimous support of council.

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