A song and demotions mark extraordinary Nelson council meeting

4:26 pm on 22 October 2020

When a group opposed to a reshuffle of the Nelson City Council broke into song this morning, all the mayor could do was sing along.

Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese.

Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

This morning's extraordinary council meeting - a full council meeting called outside the normal schedule - was this morning greeted with a rousing waiata from members of the public opposed to the restructure.

Mayor Rachel Reese appeared caught off guard by the impromptu song, but in the end, gave in and sang along with the group.

The proposal to remove councillors - including the highest polling at the last election - from their committee chair roles, was passed this morning at an often tense meeting.

Councillor Rachel Sanson, who until today chaired the governance and finance committee, challenged Reese on the reasons for the decision, and the transparency of the process.

She said an open and frank discussion among all elected members was missing from the process.

Councillors Pete Rainey and Matt Lawrey - two of the most outspoken around the table - were also to be removed from their leadership roles.

The three have been active on social media in recent months, sometimes going against council decisions.

Lawrey, a former journalist and central government political candidate, said today that they were being sidelined because they challenged council decisions and asked the hard questions.

He did not think the way the process had been handled was good for Nelson.

A staff report noted the change was, among other things, in recognition of the need for better engagement and efficient functioning of the council.

In response to a question from Sanson about aspects of the process, Reese said she needed to have conversations with councillors individually because some found it challenging to get their voice heard.

"Some people in this room are really strong orators and others need time to work through and ask questions," she said.

"For me, the respectful thing to do was meet with you individually."

Lawrey said that while the mayor had denied the decision was political, it appeared the three councillors sidelined for the rest of the term were those that she had the "biggest political problems with".

"Do you expect the people of Nelson to believe that is just a coincidence," Lawrey asked.

Reese said the structure agreed to was in the best interests of the city, and for delivering priorities.

Lawrey's comment about the "horse trading" behind the scenes of today's decision prompted bickering and laughter around the table.

The team's youngest councillor Rohan O'Neill-Stevens called for a re-think and the exploration of a new model. He said his support for the changes relied upon him being convinced they would lead to better efficiencies.

"I haven't been assured this will bring us together as a team, which is ultimately what we need if we want to deliver for the people of Nelson."

Rainey said he supported some elements of the reform but did not think democracy had been as well served as it might have been.

A long-serving councillor who has endured ridicule and bullying in her decade around the table today hit out at opposition to the restructure.

Councillor Kate Fulton said she was tired of the half-truths promulgated by social media. She said the culture within the council had been harmed by the use of social media to express dissatisfaction.

"The fabrication and the way stories are told in our community - there is often some basis but it is not the full truth."

Deputy mayor Judene Edgar said councils were often good at "business as usual" but not at change or innovation.

She said Nelson wanted progress, output and innovation and she hoped the restructure would allow that to happen.

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