4 Sep 2020

Invercargill city councillors spend day in crisis talks after Department of Internal Affairs' concerns raised

7:52 pm on 4 September 2020

Invercargill city councillors have spent most of an extraordinary meeting behind closed doors talking about how they plan to restore the public's trust and confidence.

Clock tower at Invercargill, New Zealand

Photo: 123RF

The crisis talks follow a letter from the Department of Internal Affairs scrutinising their performance after they were alerted to a series of Code of Conduct complaints and rising tensions.

Today's meeting was the first time the public could hear directly from councillors about their plans to address the department's concerns.

It featured three late agenda items - a progress update on the council's plans for the Department of Internal Affairs - including an initial budget estimate of $70,000 to cover costs, the appointment of an independent evaluator and a summary of the key concerns councillors and the chief executive have.

Deputy Mayor Toni Biddle questioned why the significant conflict between councillors and the chief executive Clare Hadley wasn't front and centre in their plan.

"So I'm wanting to clarify if in anywhere in this report it actually gives any progress, guidance or a plan as to how that will be resolved? I don't see it. I'm hoping that you have an explanation for that," Biddle said.

"Otherwise I feel this is a wee bit smoke and mirrors around the real issues."

Hadley said the key issues would be discussed in a public excluded session.

"I think the DIA were wanting to encourage us to understand where we currently are and what steps we might take to get to a better place," she said.

The council's freshly appointed independent governance expert Bruce Robertson said councillors and Hadley had discussed their key concerns with him in a way that he recommended they remain in public excluded until after the evaluation.

Less than 15 minutes later, all councillors - except Biddle - voted to adopt the draft plan and use it to update the department.

And, with that, the public portion of the meeting was over.

A release has since come out in the afternoon announcing James Crichton has been appointed the independent evaluator.

Councillor Nobby Clark said public excluded sessions were a common feature of meetings.

"Every time we need to make some tough decisions or have some tough debate, we go in behind closed doors. And what I say is we have too many workshops and too many in public excluded," Clark said.

"We should do that debating up front so that people when they watch it live streaming or later in the day, can see who's advocating for what because that's part of democracy."

He remained hopeful the review will make a positive difference.

Ratepayers react

On the streets of Invercargill, ratepayers weren't impressed.

Judith said her concerns about the council were sparked a couple of years ago.

"I think in the last few years, it has gone downwards. I think they're like a big boys' club. It's not really what the average joe would be deciding," she said.

"A lot of the people need to be gone. There needs to be new blood and new people on council and I'm quite happy with a review."

She wasn't impressed by the short public meeting before councillors move their discussions behind closed doors.

Another local, Rod wanted the council to lift their game.

"Too much political infighting I think ... They're too interested in themselves instead of worrying about the people in the city."

He just wanted them to work for the good of their community so he was welcoming the government review.

Another ratepayer just wanted the council to get back to business.

"I really just like them to stop all this bickering and get on and do the job we all elected them for."

Biddle - who is one of the councillors facing a Code of Conduct complaint - said the council should have taken ownership and spoken in front of the public.

"I think they have absolutely every right to be concerned about transparency. I believe that the information that we had in public excluded we would have been able to address that in a public forum," Biddle said.

But she acknowledged not all councillors would have felt that way.

A final report from the council's performance evaluation is expected mid next month.

The Department of Internal Affairs would also receive the report.

Ministerial advice monitoring and operations director Anita Balakrishnan said the council had updated the department on the meeting's outcome.

"We are satisfied that they are taking the necessary steps to address the issues," she said.

"As this is not a Crown intervention but is the Council that is leading this process, they are best placed to advise next steps. The Department will continue to monitor the councils progress, and support as necessary."

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