South Wairarapa Mayor not backing down

6:02 pm on 3 May 2024
South Wairarapa District Council Mayor Martin Connelly has had a vote of no confidence passed against him.

South Wairarapa District Council mayor Martin Connelly has had a vote of no confidence passed against him. Photo: LDR / Sue Teodoro

South Wairarapa Mayor Martin Connelly has returned from a two-month leave of absence to a council he remains at odds with.

After a unanimous vote of no-confidence last year, advice was sought from Local Government New Zealand [LGNZ], culminating in Connelly being granted a leave of absence to deal with "wellbeing issues" and to work with a mediator to address a raft of issues raised by councillors.

Councillors Martin Bosley and Alistair Plimmer said it was "unfortunate" to find themselves in this position.

All actions taken by the entire council to date "are a result of the actions and comments by Mr Connelly and have followed the advice from independent mediators and LGNZ", they said.

Connelly told Local Democracy Reporting that his health issues had resulted in two failed operations last year and a successful one early this year.

"There is no doubt that for a sizeable chunk of last year, I was not fit enough to do everything that I was expected to do or would have liked to have done," he said.

Now, he felt "vastly healthier than what I have done probably for two or three years".

When asked if he was ready to focus 100 percent on the job, he would not give a yes or no answer but he said he would be seeking a better balance.

"Up until about roughly when it became clear the second operation had failed, I was working something like 12-hour days and putting in another several hours on the weekend.

"By March or April [last year] that became impossible to sustain, and so I started cutting down.

"I can certainly say that what I will be doing from now on will incorporate a much better balance between outer work versus inner work."

Upon his return to the helm, Connelly has reaffirmed he has no intention of stepping down, despite a lack of support from his council.

Last week, he was effectively sidelined by his councillors and was removed from a range of committees, groups, and forums and his portfolio was distributed among elected members.

South Wairarapa councillor Martin Bosley.

South Wairarapa councillor Martin Bosley. Photo: Supplied / Wairarapa Times-Age

Councillors Plimmer and Bosley told Local Democracy Reporting that this was because Connelly had failed to follow through on any of the issues identified in an October letter, actions agreed to at mediation and his public statements.

"Our understanding is that he has never even sought to raise any of the issues with any councillor despite him stating he has done so."

Connelly said he had, however, taken the councillors' invitation to do better "seriously" - "and I thought I had responded conscientiously".

"In particular through conciliation and mediation meetings that occurred last year," Connelly said.

"Then again at a strategy meeting this year where I offered to meet any and all councillors to discuss outstanding concerns and possible remedies.

"And I will be offering meeting opportunities this year again in case any councillors now think that a constructive meeting can be held."

But Plimmer said Connelly had shown contempt towards elected members and the public by "not following through on his promise to work hard to regain [their] confidence".

"It is very clear the council works significantly more effectively and harmoniously without him than with him as shown by the annual plan work and engagement with the community over the last six weeks," Plimmer said.

Bosley said he felt as if the council had achieved more in the weeks that Deputy Mayor Melissa Saddler-Futter had been in the top seat "than in the past 18 months".

He said "an extraordinary amount of opportunities" had been given to Connelly "to work with us".

"Everyone is hurting. That's the thing. We're trying so hard. We're trying to do the right thing by him, we desperately want to do the right thing by our community, by our ratepayers."

A letter to Connelly from elected members, which was discussed in public exclusion in October, said Connelly was "disrespectful and dismissive", "acting in isolation", and was "unnecessarily provocative".

The letter was penned following code of conduct complaints, meetings, emails raising concerns, and complaints from council staff and public about Connelly.

Criticisms in the letter included observations that community members had experienced "a domineering and dismissive approach" from Connelly, and that there were variations in his performance as chair - "sometimes you are patient and considerate, other times you are rude and abrupt", the letter said.

The letter also said Connelly had "spoken to staff discourteously".

Councillors also expressed their concern about Connelly's attendance and engagement at "meetings of critical importance".

When asked if the councillors' criticisms in the letter were warranted, Connelly said it was "a potpourri of this, that, and a whole lot of other things".

"That decision [vote of no confidence] was also incidentally taken at a meeting I couldn't be at, relating to my health situation," he said.

"Without going through each of the criticisms, in some cases, the answer would be yes [they were warranted], in some cases, it would be no, in some, maybe.

"Certainly I don't feel I did anything that warranted that sort of response.

"Obviously, that letter was intended to be degrading and insulting."

Meanwhile, Connelly was unperturbed by the lack of support from his council.

"I stood with the purpose of having a council that was more civil to ordinary residents, people it works with, customers, clients, and in particular, the people who don't usually get heard."

Although he said it would be fair to say, "from the word go, some councillors and myself have not seen eye to eye".

When asked how a minority against him had become the entire council, Connelly said: "That's a good question. I think I would have to have a better understanding of group psychology to better understand that".

Connelly said upon returning from his leave of absence, he had been grateful for "the enormous number of very positive and 'keep it up' type emails and phone calls I have had."

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.