Wairoa mayoral candidate questions council's handling of electoral process

4:43 pm on 8 September 2022
Mayoral hopeful Simon Mutonhori worked for Wairoa District Council until August, when he lost his job over "serious misconduct".

Mayoral hopeful Simon Mutonhori worked for Wairoa District Council until August, when he lost his job over "serious misconduct". Photo: Supplied / LDR

A Wairoa mayoral candidate engaged in an employment dispute with the district council he once worked for has again found himself in a difficult spot, this time over election hoardings.

But in a twist, the council in question has seemingly backtracked on its order for the man's promotional signage to be removed from an address.

On 3 August, Simon Mutonhori lost his senior management position at Wairoa District Council over "serious misconduct", which included alleged behaviour towards a member of the finance team.

Mutonhori says the council offered him an exit package which included $15,000 for wrongly accusing him of the allegations. However, he refused to take it on principle.

His employment was terminated the following day, but not before Mutonhori threw his hat in the ring for mayor under the slogan "Operation Restore Hope" - an attempt to "have trust, faith and confidence once again in council".

On 26 August, Mutonhori's campaign took a knock when Wairoa electoral officer Juanita Savage made a recommendation to council chief executive Kitea Tipuna that an election hoarding of his be removed from a local address.

The hoarding had been erected at the property of a staff member who was known to the mayoral hopeful.

According to a Wairoa District Council staff memorandum released in July, the council deemed it inappropriate for staff to "obviously" support candidates.

Savage deemed the location of the material to be at odds with the council's election protocols, and called for its immediate removal.

"There would be public and other candidates aware that (the staff member) is employed by council and that he resides at this property," Savage wrote to Tipuna.

"There is the risk of a perception being made that . . . council support this candidate."

Tipuna then contacted the staff member asking for the hoarding to be removed.

Mutonhori says the hoarding has remained in place and the chief executive has since told Local Democracy Reporting that no council staff members had breached the requirement of neutrality during local government elections.

The council decided the staff member's actions did not constitute a breach, but have remained tight-lipped about how it reached that conclusion.

Wairoa is a small town at the northern tip of the Hawke's Bay with a district population of about 9000.

Wairoa is a small town at the northern tip of the Hawke's Bay with a district population of about 9000. Photo: Supplied / LDR

Meanwhile, Mutonhori is disappointed at how the saga played out and made an official complaint to the council claiming he had lost faith in Savage's ability to manage the electoral process independently.

"Your collaboration with Kitea on the issue raised above is a concern to me on your ability to handle the election process fairly given you are intricately connected to Kitea," Mutonhori told Savage in an email dated August 31.

He also highlighted his ongoing employment dispute with Tipuna, and asked if it was possible the chief executive had an interest in the outcome of the election. Mutonhori also expressed fear Tipuna could influence the way Savage handled ballot papers.

In reply, Savage required clarification about what offence had been committed under the Local Electoral Act 2001 in order to take further action.

Mutonhori reiterated he had "lost trust and confidence" in Savage's ability to manage the electoral process independently, and was told there was a section of the Act that applied for receiving the complaint.

In response to Mutonhori's request for an independent investigation, Savage said the electoral officer acted as an independent and had no governing body above them.

Ballot papers were counted by an independent agency based in Auckland, Tipuna told Local Democracy Reporting.

Mutonhori maintains his dismissal was political and that the council sought to push his employment hearing out beyond the election. Originally set for late August, it would now begin on 15 September, he said.

Mutonhori's career in civil work spans 27 years across Zimbabwe and New Zealand. He has previously held positions at Whangarei District Council, Te Arawa River Iwi Trust in Rotorua, Christchurch City Council and Ashburton District Council.

In 2021, he was awarded an overseas professional development opportunity - a trip to the United States - as part of an overseas manager exchange programme. At the time, Tipuna said the selection was a high-level recognition of Mutonhori's abilities.

The election is set for 8 October.


Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

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