Gore divided on Mayor Ben Bell

Ben Bell.
Ben Bell. Photo credit: Newshub.

By Tess Brunton of RNZ

Gore residents say they're sick of childish behaviour from their elected representatives, as councillors try to oust their mayor.

The country's youngest Mayor, Ben Bell, has been asked to resign by the majority of his council but he has refused. It will all come to a head on Tuesday when Bell will face a vote of no confidence, being removed from all committees and possible intervention from the Local Government Minister during an extraordinary meeting.

It has been a rocky ride for the Gore District Council since Bell won the mayoralty in October's election.

In March, RNZ revealed Bell and council chief executive Stephen Parry were no longer speaking, with an intermediary appointed a month later.

Terry Nicholas from Hokonui Rūnanga said Bell has the backing of the rūnanga to get on and do the mahi.

"I believe this is a matter of democracy. Ben was elected as Mayor on a mandate to support the community.

"Ben has advised me that he is committed and motivated to deliver on this important work."

With the vote of confidence only a few days away, people on the streets of Gore were keen to see an end to the turmoil.

"Well, I think it's quite childish how the whole council's acting at the moment… to be fair, I wouldn't vote again for the people who are all involved," one Southland man said.

Some wanted to see Bell hang up his mayoral chains.

"Get rid of him quick, get the old boy back," one Gore resident said.

Others believed he should stay, and the other councillors should pull their heads in.

"They let him down, they haven't supported him and they haven't given him a fair go," another Southland man said.

Another Gore resident agreed, saying he should be given a go to prove himself to the public.

Bell was not speaking to RNZ and most councillors referred interview requests to Deputy Mayor Keith Hovell, who said he would wait until Tuesday's meeting to speak.

Two councillors did not call for his resignation.

Councillor Robert McKenzie was not happy with the vote.

"I think our elected Mayor is being treated disgustingly," he said.

Councillor John Gardyne did not want to pre-empt his decision but said the council was still ticking along through its day-to-day activities.

"I have full confidence in the council to make good decisions, even if the Mayor is stood down. But it's just a matter of working through probably the problems between these two parties."

Bell was not hiding away and was spotted having lunch with a councillor in the town.

The Young Elected Members Committee of Aotearoa New Zealand have backed Bell, saying he has their unanimous support. Co-chair Alex Crackett, who has been on the Invercargill City Council since 2016, said a vote of no confidence was just wrong.

"In Ben's situation, he is fighting against an old guard that's been there for over 25 years. It's got a deeply embedded culture that some people have come to accept and even justify.

"But that doesn't make always doing the same thing or doing things the way they have always done right."

She wanted the Gore District Council to reconsider the vote.

"We really do appreciate the knowledge and experience that comes with tenure," she said. "But we recognise the importance that his youthful voice and fresh perspective bring to the table and we think that that should definitely be respected.

"A vote of no confidence, we think, is just wrong in this case."

She was conscious aspiring young leaders would be watching what happened to Bell.

"[They] will be paying very close attention to how this situation is resolved and how he is treated through this, because [this could] be an absolute deterrent to somebody who is thinking about being really active in the political space or being really active in their communities, and they may just choose to stand down."

The Gore District Council said a vote of no confidence would not trigger a mandatory resignation under the Local Government Act.

Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty said he would intervene if the dispute meant the council could not fulfil its role - but he has no responsibility for relations between councillors.

"Councils are responsible for resolving their own problems. This is the expectation for all councils in New Zealand.

"When particular problems arise in councils, the Department of Internal Affairs works with the council to understand the nature and extent of the problem.

"The department is in contact with Gore District Council and supporting where able. I am being updated as appropriate. 

"At the moment, statutory obligations are being met. If that changes, then intervention will be considered."

Voting will take place on Tuesday.