What happened to City Watch? Leaked report reveals Gisborne group's demise

4:39 pm on 19 September 2022
Gisborne’s central business district is a lot quieter without Rhythm and Vines.

Gisborne District Council's City Watch were a security patrol presence in the CBD prior to their fall from grace last year. Photo: RNZ / Matai O’Connor

Accusations of foul language, intimidating behaviour and conspiring to record a conversation spelt the end of a council-run group designed to be the eyes and ears of the city, a leaked report shows.

In December, Gisborne District Council's City Watch resigned in unison, with no explanation given by the council.

The group existed to provide a security patrol presence within the city's central business district.

Now, a confidential draft report obtained by Local Democracy Reporting reveals cracks began appearing as early as May 2021, when the council received a complaint City Watch had displayed a bad attitude while dealing with an incident.

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By the time an independent investigation was launched later in the year, nine complaints and 23 allegations had been made against the group from both within and outside of the council.

A confidential report was completed by October, addressing the validity of those complaints through interviews and the reviewing of body camera footage.

The complaints included that the group were intimidating because of their size and military-style clothing (which included balaclavas and stab-proof vests), that trust had been breached after a meeting was recorded without the complainant's knowledge, and that the team had a "bad attitude".

City Watch ultimately walked just before Christmas, with one member telling Local Democracy Reporting they were paid out by the council. But that member - who Local Democracy Reporting has decided not to name - says the team felt pushed out of their jobs.

The first complaint came in May 2021, when a member of the public alleged she was lectured about the city's by-laws by a City Watch team who displayed "attitude".

Earlier that day, a member of the group moved a rough sleeper off a bench outside a cafe near where the complainant worked.

The complainant said all three members of the team arrived at her workplace later in the day accusing her of interfering with their work, while remaining uninterested in her views.

Upon reviewing the body camera footage of both visits, the council also expressed concern about the attitude of its team, accusatory tone, and comments made when asked to leave by the complainant.

Responding to the allegation, a member of City Watch said the issue had been sorted out at the time with team lead Ross Hannam, who is head of animal control and parking at the council.

In his assessment, the investigator substantiated the allegation a City Watch member made comments of an accusatory nature to the member of the public, but could not substantiate that they interjected, were argumentative, or inappropriate.

The council hoped to keep two rural ward councillors as part of an amended proposal, but the commission opted for the council's initial proposal. At the next election, the council will be made up of eight councillors elected in a general ward and five councillors elected in a Māori ward.

A leaked report shows issues began surfacing for the council-run group in May 2021, and continued throughout the year. Photo: Matthew Rosenberg/LDR.

The problems facing the group were only beginning, however.

Later that month, a senior council staffer was left "shocked and offended" by body camera footage he watched while reviewing an incident. The footage included bad language and two members of City Watch conspiring to covertly record a conversation with that staffer, without his knowledge.

On May 14, 2021, the staffer had called on the assistance of the group to assist with a member of the public who was creating a disturbance at council buildings. Reluctant to get involved for safety reasons, City Watch ultimately obliged.

After the incident was resolved, the team hung around the council building before getting into a car with their body cameras still recording.

After reviewing the footage, the staffer felt he was slated by City Watch's ensuing conversation, and was upset to find the team had coordinated recording the initial interaction with him. He was also upset to hear one of the team members say there were "too many witnesses at council".

City Watch admitted recording the conversation, and said they had not informed the staffer they were using a phone to do so. Although the action was not illegal under New Zealand law, the investigator found the actions to be capable of potential misconduct.

The next month, problems moved into the sphere of the literary world when in June 2021, library staff raised issues about City Watch's behaviour while using their tea room. It was alleged the group travelled in packs and used bad language without "any social nous", the report said.

City Watch took tea breaks which were usually longer than the allowed time, and sat in the tearoom in darkness so they could see their phones, a library staff member alleged.

One of the group's members said they had good conversations with the librarians, and the investigator was unable to reach a conclusion on whether it was "unprofessional or vaguely intimidating" to keep the lights turned off.

On July 8, 2021, a council employee raised concerns about the group's behaviour, including negativity, intimidation, and using inappropriate language such as "dog" when referring to each other. The employee said the group often came into the council offices in the afternoon to use computers and there was a lot of "slagging off".

Team lead Ross Hannam was interviewed in response to the allegations, saying he had tried unsuccessfully to get the team out of their "robo cop" uniforms.

He said the team had an attitude, describing them as rude and impolite, while also admitting there was swearing in the office, including from himself.

Although a conclusion couldn't be found for all allegations levelled at the group, all three voluntarily resigned in December, paid an undisclosed sum in the process.

Asked for correspondence between relevant departments about the resignations, the council withheld the information on the grounds of privacy.

It also declined a request to provide correspondence between the council and the three employees.

"Council is unable to comment about employment matters of employees," a council spokesperson said.

Māori Wardens have been engaged by the council in place of the City Watch employees.

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air