November 29, 2023

Gore chief lives to fight another day

Gore chief lives to fight another day

First a no-confidence vote in the mayor and now a petition to sack the CEO have fizzled in the festering Southland local-body power struggle

A petition to oust Gore District chief executive Stephen Parry has been labelled “malicious” and “contrary to natural justice” by councillors and summarily dismissed.

Mayor Ben Bell, who tabled the near-5000-signature petition on behalf of the submitter, cast the only vote against a motion to not accept it at the Tuesday meeting.

Several councillors at the meeting apologised to council staff who they believed have been subject to “bullying” or “unjustified attacks” as the stand-off between Bell and Parry continues.

It was standing-room only at the meeting, the latest episode in a saga that has been in the headlines since Bell was elected last October.

Afterwards a group of Gore ratepayers who didn’t want to be named said they were disappointed by the decision not to accept the petition with one ratepayer calling the councillors “gutless”.

Councillor Paul McPhail, who read from a prepared statement, said elected members last week sought advice “regarding their legal obligations surrounding the outcome of the petition”.

That advice included “the employment of the CEO is not a public matter and the employment relationship is private. It is not a matter for the public to debate,” said McPhail.

“If there are serious allegations of wrongdoing then the council as the employer must act but beyond that should ignore wide-ranging or baseless allegations.”

McPhail said as noted in an agenda item on May 3, “Council resolved that the mayor and councillors support and have full confidence in the chief executive and the staff in providing for the ongoing functioning of the council in undertaking its day-to-day activities and that is still true today.”

McPhail asked for respect for Gore District Council who are members of the community.

He said councillors were aware of the strong support staff have for the “operational leadership” of the local authority.

Councillor Glenys Dickson, who disagreed with the petition being placed on the agenda, said it was invalid because it was wordier than allowed and petitions “must not be disrespectful”.

She noted her name was on the petition yet she could “categorically state” she had not signed it.

“The uninformed commentary and unjustified attacks on the CEO, staff and councillors are extremely unpleasant and detrimental to the district’s reputation,” she said.

Councillor Keith Hovell, who moved that the petition not be accepted, questioned its merits.

“It is no different than something appearing on Facebook and getting a whole lot of likes. But what are they actually liking?

“The statement that comes with it refers to the CEO, to councillors and the underperformance of the press. What are people actually supporting?”

A petition needs to have certainty as to whom it is addressed and what action the signatories are seeking, he said.

Hovell said the petition “fails to meet the test”.

Pending review

Councillors have agreed to an independent review to restore confidence in the local body but are yet to sign off on terms of reference, which are being reviewed by lawyers.

Wellington lawyer Linda Clark is expected to head the inquiry, which will cost an estimated $130,000 and be completed by mid-September.

At the meeting, Hovell apologised to council staff for bullying they’ve been subjected to.

“I am extremely sorry for what the collective actions of the officials has resulted in over the recent months.

“You don’t deserve it. You have our full support.”

Councillor Bronwyn Reid said she believed the petition “has no legal standing or validity” and “is very malicious in its intent”.

“It is in direct legal and moral conflict with our obligations as a good employer to the CEO.”

Reid said she believed if they accepted the petition it would show “extremely poor judgment” and “potentially expose ratepayers to further costs”.

In the October local elections, Bell ousted long-standing mayor Tracy Hicks by a handful of votes.

However, the relationship between Bell and Parry soon broke down.

In March it was revealed the pair were no longer speaking and McPhail was acting as an intermediary.

The 4858-signature petition organised by Gore local Sean Burke came on the back of a proposed vote of no confidence in Bell.

Hundreds of Gore residents,including supporters from outside the district, protested outside the May council meeting at which the no-confidence vote was to be put.

However, councillors decided not to put the matter to the vote and instead agreed to the independent review.

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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