27 Oct 2020

Dunedin councillor told to apologise for intimidating behaviour

7:04 pm on 27 October 2020

The censuring of a Dunedin councillor for threatening behaviour has been described as a slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket.

Dunedin City councillor Lee Vandervis.

Dunedin City councillor Lee Vandervis (R). Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Three Dunedin councillors complained about the behaviour of Lee Vandervis towards the deputy mayor after a meeting in July.

A subsequent investigation upheld the complaints, finding Councillor Lee Vandervis behaved aggressively, discourteously and in a manner anyone would have found intimidating.

The council met today to discuss the investigation and what to do next with the possible penalties including being asked to consider resigning, a vote of no confidence or suspension from committees.

Angry, red-faced and looming over the deputy mayor while speaking in a loud, aggressive tone is how the complainants described Vandervis confronting deputy mayor Christine Garey.

Garey told the investigation he was so out of control it crossed her mind that he might hit her.

Councillor Rachel Elder remembers hearing what happened after the July meeting.

"I was startled and involuntarily jumped when I heard a sudden loud voice behind me. I did not see [what] happened between councillor Garey and councillor Vandervis, but it was enough to give me a big fright."

David Benson-Pope said it was far from an isolated incident.

"Watching you for decades, you sort of are like someone who is the bad sportsman who stands on the sideline and puts your foot out to trip people who are running past," Benson-Pope said.

"The worst thing in all of this is that you continue to be in denial. This is on you, Lee. You are the perpetrator here."

Councillor Chris Staynes said Vandervis treated councillors, and the council as a body, with disrespect.

"I have no doubt that if an employee of a business behaved in this way that they would have - at a minimum - received a written warning. Should it have been a repeated breach, it would - in my opinion - lead to dismissal."

He lamented that the council's Code of Conduct limited the sanctions they could impose, saying the best they could require was a genuine, unreserved and public apology.

He put forward a motion requiring such an apology next week, or by stripped of his membership to the Otago Museum Trust Board and District Licensing Committee.

In an aside, he also recommended Vandervis seek support.

Carmen Houlahan said she often voted with Vandervis, but his outbursts had been completely normalised and that was not okay.

"It is not okay to not feel safe in your work environment, and right now I do not believe his behaviour is safe or normal and it should not be accepted, and I strongly accept this and condone this Code of Conduct.

"I do think it's a bit of a slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket."

Councillor Jules Radich said there were aggravating factors on the day, but he would still support the motion.

"Bullying comes in many guises and he has good reason to feel bullied when his point of order was dismissed out of hand without consultation about it. And naturally, a fair degree of frustration would have welled up with him being felt like he was being ganged up on and being unable to get his point across," Radich said.

Councillor Sophie Barker said the behaviour was unacceptable.

"Not only has the incident gone against the Code of Conduct for councillors, but I feel it has gone against our duty to provide a safe workplace for our council team so I'll be supporting this motion and I'll be hoping to never again have to hear a Code of Conduct about anyone else at the council table. Our city deserves better than this behaviour."

Mayor Aaron Hawkins called the Code of Conduct process toothless.

"The tools that we have do little more than provide a platform for the aggrieved, and we've tried cos we've had plenty of practice at dealing with this pattern of behaviour. We've tried a number of things. We've tried censure - didn't particularly work. Apologies that are requested are generally delivered in a diminished and half-hearted form."

Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins during a City Council meeting. Deputy mayor Christine Garey in the foreground.

Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins during a City Council meeting. Deputy mayor Christine Garey in the foreground. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

The three complainants, Vandervis and three other councillors with vested interests did not participate in discussing the investigation.

Instead Christine Garey provided a statement after the meeting, saying no one, not staff nor elected members should come to work feeling unsafe or fearful of experiencing what she did.

"The investigator's report speaks for itself and was clear that intimidating, aggressive, out of control behaviour has no place in this organisation, or any work place for that matter," she said.

Garey also raised her concerns about the limited tools within council to deal with such extreme behaviour.

"I welcome the work that has already begun at a national level to address this matter. I will continue to support these efforts to ensure that we have the means to hold people to account within local government."

Vandervis used his right of reply to defend himself, questioning the choice of investigator and the complaints themselves.

"The only words of mine recorded are my parting: 'I will point whoever I like', which was in response to deputy Garey's demand: 'Don't you dare point at me'. My raised voice was in response to Garey's false accusations that I - quote - 'was just having a go' - unquote. Cutting across my complaint of her not doing her job as deputy mayor."

He acknowledged it was a mistake to verbally complain to Garey and raise his voice.

"I sincerely apologised for both of these mistakes in my email to her and others within earshot the following morning. My undertaking in that apology to make all my future non-public complaints in writing should ensure that there is no further opportunity for such unpleasantness," Vandervis said.

In the end, the vote was unanimous.

Lee Vandervis has to publicly apologise for his behaviour by next Tuesday or face further consequences.