December 10, 2023

Coast council sends ‘action man’ packing

Coast council sends ‘action man’ packing

West Coasters might have a taste for the gung-ho but pragmatism has taken a turn for the cautious at an extraordinary Greymouth council meeting

Outspoken West Coast Regional Council chair Allan Birchfield has been rolled by his colleagues in a bid to make peace with the government and stem the tide of senior staff heading for the exits.

The Greymouth gold miner – an unabashed critic of bureaucrats, greenies, climate-change activists and “Wellington” rules – was deposed as chair this morning at an extraordinary council meeting.

His deputy, Peter Haddock, has been elected to replace him as chair with only one dissenting vote.

The result was not unexpected.

The council has been in a state of flux since the abrupt departure of chief executive Vin Smith in 2021 following a clash with Birchfield over resource consents and rates.

Key senior staff have since left and at the first meeting of the new council, when the high-polling Birchfield was re-elected as chair, replacement chief executive Heather Mabin announced she’d be quitting too.

Haddock says he has huge respect for Birchfield and his family who have provided employment, economic benefits and generosity to the Coast community for generations.

The agenda item – to remove him as chair – was the most difficult he had faced in many years of sitting on councils, he says.

“But there has been a disconnect between the council and the staff through the chair for some time. That cannot happen in this organisation or any other.

“The council is trying to recruit a new chief executive and senior management and if we can’t we will have a commissioner in here and that’s not good for the Coast.”

Councillor Peter Ewen, a strong supporter of Birchfield in the past, says the West Coast is at a crossroads and the council needs to be seen as working together with a united voice.

Demands for government funding will be high after the cyclone that has devastated the north, he warns.

“Wellington is driven by perception and if perception is wrong we will be at the back of the queue. In the past we’ve been pretty outspoken around this table, myself included.

“But sometimes you have to temper that because at the end of the day Wellington calls the shots and the viability of a lot of our communities depends on what Wellington does in future.”

The West Coast has a habit of scoring own goals and should not jeopardise its future, Ewen says.

“I have the utmost respect for Allan, it’s a difficult situation for all of us, but the wider picture is important. I hope it’s not a case of ‘I’m either chair or I’m out of here’. I would still like Allan to be part of council. He has a lot to contribute.”

“Thank you, Gentlemen”

Birchfield, who chaired the meeting, left immediately after the vote to unseat him, showing no sign of emotion.

“I will vacate the chair – thank you, Gentlemen,” he said as he left.

Speaking afterwards, he said he had not decided whether to remain as a councillor.

“I’m as good as gold … but I’m not sure I want to get back into the scrap.”

The tension between Birchfield and staff has been – in the main – classic governance versus management.

According to the rules, councillors don’t interfere with operational matters and the chair doesn’t pressure its only employee – the CEO – to do things in a certain way.

But in a small region – population 33,000 – where men with diggers are highly valued and frequently elected to council, those divisions have in the past been less than rigid.

The council’s most important job from the perspective of many West Coasters is to protect them from rivers that can turn feral overnight in a part of the country where annual rainfall is measured in metres.

Kilometres of armour rock defend vulnerable river banks and hard-won pasture; giant flood walls protect towns and highways.

And a hole in a stop bank can mean disaster if you have to wait for a resource consent to fix it or for staff to decide if the job can be done under emergency rules.

Birchfield’s only supporter at the meeting, Brett Cummings, says a recent flooding debacle in Westland highlights the problem.

Heavy rain at Waitangi weekend had caused the Wanganui River to breach a stop bank near Harihari.

Ratepayers who fund the stop bank urged the council to fix it quickly warning that a second flood would rip through farms including that of new councillor Andy Campbell.

But by early March they were still waiting and further rain arrived.

“What was an $80,000 repair Andy was prepared to pay for has turned into a $600,000 clean-up operation.”

The bureaucratic approach to river control was not the way the council used to work, according to Cummings. 

Some years ago Saltwater Creek south of Greymouth had blocked and posed a risk to homes and a school, he told the meeting.

“We got an excavator, opened the mouth of the river and took the repercussions on the chin. Allan will tell you it was worth it.”

The West Coast has a long history of gung-ho pragmatism involving diggers, dozers and helicopters.

And since its pioneering days it’s had a fine disregard for authority and a tradition of two-fingered salutes to various governments.

Does Birchfield’s ejection symbolise the end of an era? Cummings seems to think so.

”Allan is a man of action and unfortunately in the world of bureaucracy we see today there’s no room for action men.”

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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