Government may have to intervene in Gore District Council stoush - expert

The Gore District Council is on the path to government intervention, a local government academic says.

Gore Mayor Ben Bell and council chief executive Stephen Parry are no longer on speaking terms after attempting mediation in December.

The council this week voted to initiate an independent review into the dysfunction at the council so solutions to restore confidence in the body could be brought to councillors.

It was described by Parry as "a cry for help politically".

Local government academic Dr Andy Asquith of Curtin University said there were clear parallels between the dysfunction at Gore District Council and other territorial authorities such as Invercargill City Council and Tauranga City Council - where first-term mayor Tenby Powell resigned in 2020 and commissioners had been in place since.

"There's a clear path here and I think that's where it's going.

"There needs to be a fundamental shift in the position of the mayor and the CEO. My view would be that won't happen because they've both dug themselves into positions now that they can't back down from."

Following the council meeting on Tuesday - the first since it was publicly revealed the pair were not speaking - both men indicated they were sticking to their guns.

"That's a recipe for disaster," Dr Asquith said.

"It's not just the ratepayers of Gore, it's the citizens of Gore that will pay the price."

Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty, the Department of Internal Affairs and Local Government New Zealand were aware of the issues at the Gore District Council and keeping a watching brief.

The government had been reviewing local government policy, though Dr Asquith believed it had been quietly dropped.

However, any reforms could have serious ramifications for councils like Gore.

"One of the things that could be on their agenda is amalgamation and one of the rationales for amalgamation is small councils become dysfunctional because they can't attract the right calibre of people.

"So in that context, Gore could be helping to lead to its amalgamation."

While Gore was the first council for problems to emerge in this term, it would not be the last, he said.

"This is not the first time this has happened, if you go back to the last round of councils - you had the dysfunction in Invercargill, you had it in Wellington to a certain extent, you had it in Tauranga.

"They all demonstrate two key things. The first one is that when you have people elected to council, and especially the mayoralty, that don't understand the scope and scale of local government and the role that's expected of them, then that's a problem.

"Alongside that you have unfortunately, far too often I think, chief executives that don't understand what local government is about and they're doing the role for, in effect, the wrong reasons.

"You put those things together and you have the potential for dysfunction."

The first six months of this triennium had been plagued by controversies for the Gore District Council.

Stephen Parry and Ben Bell.
Stephen Parry and Ben Bell. Photo credit: Newshub.

They included a spat over Bell's wish to appoint his own executive assistant, expenses related to his trip to mayoral training in Wellington, a council retreat which was boycotted by some councillors, the mayor's plan for committee structure and membership, and the attempted requisition and ultimate resignation of his first-choice for deputy mayor.

There had been suspicion around the council table and among staff due to information from behind-closed-doors meetings being leaked to media, including RNZ.

Among the details to emerge was extent of the strain of the relationship between Bell and Parry.

Two days before the election the previous council had extended the chief executive's contract by the two-year maximum available to them, effectively shackling the incoming council to the chief executive for almost the entirety of the triennium.

Dr Asquith said that in particular did not look good.

"I would tend to use this analogy - if it moves like a cow, milks like a cow, craps like a cow, it's probably a cow.

"It is bad. It looks bad, even if everything is above board, the fact that it looks bad sends the wrong signal."

Nationally, voter turnout continued the decline at last year's local elections and transparency was a key issue, Dr Asquith said.

"People are disengaged because they don't know what local government is about, they don't see its relevance to them and a key part of that is this issue of decisions being made by secret white men, typically, in dark rooms without any exposure."

For now, the Gore District Council had appointed another councillor to act as a go-between for the mayor and chief executive, and would determine the terms of reference for the independent review at next month's meeting.