Council dispute Gore: LGNZ ‘very aware’ of issues

New Zealand’s local government says it is “very aware” of the problems at Gore District Council.

It was revealed last night that 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 that another council member had to act as a go-between between the men.

It’s clear that Bell and Parry have had a frosty relationship since the election.

RNZ has received emails showing that things have been prickly between the pair from the start of the triennium.

It eventually resulted in the entire board sending a letter to the mayor expressing concern about his unwillingness to interact with the staff, misrepresenting situations, feeling that the staff would fail and the reputation of would endanger the council and the staff.

At an extraordinary council meeting behind closed doors on Tuesday, councilors noted that the pair had been engaged in mediation since December.

They also noticed the rift in their relationship and voted to designate another elected member to act as an intermediary.

Bell was also removed from the committee overseeing CEO performance.

Susan Freeman-Greene, CEO of Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), said the situation in Gore had come to the attention of the body.

“Obviously we are very aware of the issues at Gore County Council and we have kept in touch with the mayor and CE.”

LGNZ could play a bigger role in such difficulties in the future, Freeman-Greene said.

“One of the important roles of Local Government NZ is to help councils with difficult relationship problems.

“We play a key role in developing codes of conduct and guidelines for municipalities, but these can be blunt tools.

“We see a huge opportunity for LGNZ to formalize its role in preventing the escalation of difficult relationship issues around the council table. We are in the early stages of developing a resolution service that will enable a range of responses – from peer support to colleagues to facilitation. But it will require investments from municipalities to set this up with the right resources.”

RNZ asked local government minister Kieran McAnulty what he knew about 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 couple’s working relationship; and whether he had sought or sought advice on the need for supervisory directors from the Board.

McAnulty initially declined to comment, but a spokesman did clarify that “the minister has not sought advice from the council on the need for commissioners”.

In a joint statement last night, attributed to Gore Deputy Mayor Keith Hovell and Rex Capil, the borough’s general manager of community lifestyle services, the council outlined what was being discussed at the meeting.

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

“The meeting was publicly announced on Thursday, March 23 on the Council’s Public Notice page. It was also retroactively announced on the Council’s notice board, in The Ensign, on Wednesday, March 29. These notices are in accordance with the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

“The extraordinary meeting was convened by Gore County Mayor Ben Bell. All council members attended the meeting, which was chaired by Deputy Mayor Keith Hovell.

“Both the mayor and general manager Stephen Parry were given the opportunity to address the meeting and answer questions from council members separately.

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

None of the council members contacted by RNZ were willing to discuss what happened at the meeting.

Hovell did clarify that Bell had been removed from the council’s Chief Executive Appraisal Committee and Councilor Bronwyn Reid had been appointed in his place.

RNZ understood that during the meeting there was discussion about a vote of no confidence in Bell.

Capil emailed RNZ to say “no motion has been introduced or discussed”.

When asked if such a motion had been introduced or discussed, Hovell said “no comment on that”.

RNZ was unable to contact Bell or Parry.

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

Bell’s initial choice as deputy mayor – Stewart MacDonell – was removed after a majority of council members signed a letter calling for him to leave.

That led to Hovell’s nomination with the unanimous backing of the council.