23 Jul 2014

Council boss admits perception of bias

12:51 pm on 23 July 2014

The chief executive of the Whangarei District Council has admitted his treatment of two staff during last year's election has left an impression of bias and double standards.

Mark Simpson sacked his personal assistant for nominating a mayoral candidate, but allowed a personal adviser to work on the mayoral campaign of the council's finance chair.

The sacked staff member, Jan Walters, has taken a case to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) in Whangarei and is suing for wrongful dismissal.

Mr Simpson told the hearing on Tuesday that Ms Walters breached council election protocols and his trust by nominating a former mayor, Stan Semenoff, for the mayoralty.

He said he'd let his adviser Ford Watson help another mayoral candidate - council finance chairperson Warwick Syers - thinking the work was minor and that Mr Watson's job was different.

Mr Simpson told the hearing he dismissed Ms Walters because he and acting mayor Phil Halse lost confidence in her after she signed the mayoral nomination form for Mr Semenoff. He said Mr Halse was taking confidential council work home, as he no longer trusted Ms Walters.

In reply to questions from Ms Walters' lawyer, Anthony Russell, Mr Simpson said he told no one in his leadership team he had given Mr Watson approval to work on Mr Syers' campaign.

Mr Simpson said he was not trying to hide anything but thought it was no one else's business.

Presiding ERA member Robin Arthur said the purpose of the council's election protocols was to ensure staff remained politically neutral in their dealings with councillors and the public, and not align themselves with any candidates - incumbent or aspiring.

Yet, he said, the protocols gave the chief executive the right to make exceptions and approve the involvement of staff in political campaigns, at his discretion.

Mr Arthur asked Mr Simpson if he accepted that this contradicted the stated intent of the protocols, and that by using his discretion in Mr Watson's case, he had left the council open to allegations of bias and double standards.

Mr Simpson said he accepted that - but that he had tried to balance the election protocols with Mr Watson's rights as an elector.

Mr Arthur said the discretionary clause had created a situation where the chief executive could be seen as secretly supporting a certain candidate and Mr Simpson had made a deliberate decision that caused that perception.

In his evidence, Mr Watson said the Mr Simpson had told him he wanted Mr Syers to win the mayoral election - a claim Mr Simpson on Tuesday denied.

Mr Watson confirmed he asked Mr Simpson in May for approval to work on Mr Syers' mayoral campaign and said Mr Simpson asked no questions and gave his immediate consent - with a warning not to do the work on council time or equipment.

The hearing continues on Wednesday.