Nelson councillor censured for conduct

8:52 pm on 11 August 2022

It was a miserable day around the Nelson City Council table, as elected members expressed their distress, sadness and concern over the events that led to one of their own being reprimanded through the code of conduct process.

No caption

Civic House, home of the Nelson City Council. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Councillor Rachel Sanson was censured today after an investigation determined she fell short of the standard expected for elected members while asking questions in public meetings and in Facebook posts, mostly regarding the council's own forestry operations in public reserves and water catchments.

Nelson City Council chief executive Pat Dougherty raised a code of conduct complaint against Sanson in October, an action he said he was reluctant to take and that was a last resort.

He said he tried to discuss Sanson's behaviour with her directly on several occasions, but lost faith after she "launched an attack" on his staff during a committee meeting a week after their last meeting in September 2020.

After a 10-month investigation, investigator Bruce Roberston found on eight occasions out of 10 listed in the complaint, Sanson had been critical of council staff.

Dougherty said he had a responsibility to ensure the welfare and protect the reputation of his staff.

"I don't think councillor Sanson is aware of the power imbalance that exists between staff and elected members.

"Staff are in a vulnerable position when they are presenting to a formal meeting of council or a committee, they are there to present a report and answer questions, but they cannot debate with councillors and they do not have the ability to protect themselves from criticism."

Sanson's view

Sanson did not accept her conduct met the threshold for a complaint to be upheld and said the process was flawed.

She said she never intended to undermine staff or question their personal integrity.

"I have however, tested information before us, questioned political direction, and constructively challenged decisions being made that I felt were not in the best interests of our community."

Sanson said speaking up had come at significant personal cost, and in her 30-year working life she had never experienced anything as dysfunctional or damaging as her experience at Nelson City Council.

"These experiences include being harangued and shamed for speaking out on forestry, climate change and library issues, losing my position as chair along with two other experienced councillors who ask robust questions, being intimidated into not presenting my final report at my last meeting as a committee chair, orchestrated points of order to silence me in meetings, being denied joining meetings remotely when other councillors were allowed this during school holidays and bereavements, code of conduct complaints with no opportunity to defend myself, and more."

Sanson said she requested mediation in December 2020 that was refused by the Dougherty, on behalf of mayor Rachel Reese.

She said the code of conduct complaint process had cost ratepayers tens of thousands of dollars and could have been resolved with a conversation.

"In my experience [council] is not a safe and inclusive environment. There has been almost no formal support, guidance or mentoring on how to navigate the unique and very public environment of politics."

The mood in the council chamber throughout the six-hour meeting was sombre, and councillor Rohan O'Neill Stevens called it "nothing short of a little bit miserable for everyone involved".

"It's clear that the code hasn't delivered to its own principles of enhancing the credibility and accountability of the local government to its community and developing a culture of mutual trust, respect and tolerance."

He said the process had visibly done harm to everyone involved and council needed better systems for calling each other out.

"Are we children? Because sometimes it really feels like we behave like it."

Sanson 'targeted'

Sanson was described by councillor Matt Lawrey as a "hardworking, passionate and committed" elected member who bought "aroha and intellect" to the table.

"She has been targeted for her views, particularly for her views on forestry and I believe she has been the victim of bullying."

Lawrey said the code of conduct complaint process had been an unhelpful, destructive and disproportionate response given other elected members had potentially besmirched the reputation of council staff with off-the-cuff comments and ill-considered Facebook posts that had not been the subject of such complaints.

He said the breach, which he said was effectively a misdemeanour, could have been avoided.

"It's ridiculous we've ended up dealing with this in this way today, I believe Madame Mayor as the leader of the council, you should have headed this off at the pass."

Councillor Pete Rainey said he had no faith in the "deeply flawed" code of conduct process that led to the report being tabled and questioned how it had got to this point.

"Why was there no real attempt to de-escalate this issue at a much, much earlier opportunity?"

Rainey said he was ready to send in his nomination papers for this year's local body elections, but for some time had been questioning if he really wanted to stand again.

"Members of the public still considering standing must be wondering about the environment in which they may find themselves in shortly."

Councillor Brian McGurk said if a council had to enforce its code of conduct, then something had gone terribly wrong.

"There will be no winners, we are finding this distasteful and we are in this really difficult situation."

Councillor Mel Courtney said the process took "far too long" and the situation should have been "nipped in the bud" before there were 10 breaches.

"We had a new councillor, training wheels on, we needed to guide her, advise her and help her and I just think it's such a sad moment here today that we didn't act."

Councillor Kate Fulton said it was an incredibly emotional day and many avenues had been exhausted in trying to support Sanson.

"I sent many text messages imploring her to try a different approach, working with staff and elected members to have her voice heard in public meetings."

Mayor Rachel Reese said she was concerned to hear of Sanson's behaviour being dismissed as a misdemeanour when it had affected staff.

"The staff were saying they were dealing with a councillor who was repeatedly undermining them in the council chamber and they've asked their chief executive to bring that forward."

She said it was a very sad day to see the staff were left with so little support from their elected members.

"Ultimately what I heard today was an apology and then no accountability, and that's not good enough."

Reese asked the councillors if they really understood their role in supporting council staff to bring good advice to the council table.

"I am deeply, deeply distressed to see elected members who can't step up to do that.

"It is hard, but it's worse if you step back and do nothing."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs