Remuneration Authority rejects Dunedin mayor's salary cut proposal

7:11 pm on 11 December 2022
Dunedin Mayor Elect Jules Radich

Duendin Mayor Jules Radich rejected any suggestion his proposed pay for councillors David Benson-Pope and Steve Walker was politically motivated or out of spite. Photo: RNZ / Tim Brown

A stoush is brewing between Dunedin's new mayor and two left-wing councillors, with one of the councillors labelling the mayor's actions vindictive.

New Mayor Jules Radich put forward a remuneration proposal for the coming triennium that would cut the pay of the lowest earning councillors by 11.7 percent.

The Remuneration Authority rejected the proposal and said it was unlikely they would have been following the law if they allowed it to proceed.

Radich said his actions were not political, but rather a reflection of the difference in work he expected from those holding additional responsibilities.

During the previous triennium, the deputy mayor and committee chairs received additional compensation, while all other councillors took home the same pay - $72,851 in the last year.

Under previous mayor Aaron Hawkins, only councillor Lee Vandervis did not have role as chair or deputy chair. However, he took home the same pay as those only holding deputy chair roles.

Dunedin City Councillor Lee Vandervis said his comments to Joshua Perry could cost him the Dunedin mayoralty.

Councillor Lee Vandervis Photo: Supplied: Dunedin City Council

But Radich proposed a new seven-committee structure with every councillor getting a role as a chair or deputy.

Councillors David Benson-Pope and Steve Walker said they were offered deputy roles Radich knew they would reject and then - in breaking with a long-held council tradition - the mayor proposed paying deputies more than them.

Radich's proposed structure would have deputy chairs earning $80,442 while Walker and Benson-Pope would earn $64,353 - about $8500 less than Vandervis had in the same role earlier this year.

Benson-Pope said it was politically motivated.

"It's nothing unusual in politics of people shafting their opponents, but I've never seen it done with such unpleasantness," he told RNZ.

"It's more than just punitive, it was vindictive what it ended up being and I think most people would see it as just that. So I'm delighted the Remuneration Authority has reined in the excess."

The mayor's proposed seven-committee structure was bloated, clumsy and unworkable and was designed to buy political support, Benson-Pope said.

"I don't think people have to look at it for too long to reach the obvious conclusion that this was jobs for the boys and those sort of deals don't stick one way or another, but it does speak volumes about the mayor who put this structure together," he said.

Councillor Steve Walker also had concerns about how the mayor would wield his power during the coming triennium after the episode.

"I am extremely encouraged that the Remuneration Authority has recognised the overly punitive treatment of myself and councillor Benson-Pope, and that they've been wise enough to rectify the situation and not proceed with the proposed allocation that council signed off on," Walker said.

Walker and Benson-Pope said it was a long-standing tradition that deputy chairs were paid the same as their fellow councillors who did not hold such positions, as they did much the same work.

Both claimed they were not told by Radich of his intention to change that during one-on-one meetings.

"Never at any point ... during the one-to-one meetings, which we had with the new mayor - where he promised to actively listen, but didn't reveal that he was going to actively ignore - did he reveal he was going to change the long-standing tradition of not paying deputy chairs, which I think to most fair-minded people seems extremely underhanded," Walker said.

Both councillors said they believed Radich had offered them committee positions he knew they would refuse.

Neither would reveal which roles they were offered, but RNZ understands they were as deputy chairs to the new Customer and Regulatory, and Civic committees.

During the previous triennium, committee appointments also caused controversy as councillor Lee Vandervis turned down a deputy role offered to him by then-mayor Aaron Hawkins because Vandervis believed the offer was insulting.

However, Vandervis was paid the same as anyone holding a deputy role. A fact the new mayor had only recently become aware of.

"My impression at the time was that during the previous triennium councillors - singular or plural, I'm not sure, I only asked one if they were on the minimum and they said yes," Radich told RNZ.

"However, they probably weren't aware what the minimum was and it was only subsequent to hearing back from the Remuneration Authority, sometime later, that I asked directly what the actual figure they were being paid was and it was only at that point that I found out it was a higher figure. It was the same as a deputy chair."

Radich was present at the meeting in 2019 in which remuneration and committee structures were approved for the coming triennium, but he said he "had no recollection and certainly didn't refer back to that meeting to see the actual figures".

"It's not something I took any notice of," he said.

"I asked councillor Vandervis if he was paid less and he said yes. But ... it's not something that I or he was probably checking for accuracy or checking as to what exactly the numbers were, so it is a shame I didn't check that, for sure."

When asked why he did not check the numbers before putting his proposal to council or sending it to the Remuneration Authority, Radich responded: "It did not occur to me to check it".

"Nobody raised it to my attention that it was anything extraordinary or, you know, anything extraordinary - yeah."

However, councillor Marie Laufiso did raise the matter at the council's 26 October meeting where remuneration was discussed.

"Yes, yes, that's right, she did," Radich conceded when this was pointed out.

"However, the thing is everyone was offered jobs and two chose not to take them, and so councillors voted to stick with what had been decided or proposed, so we did."

Radich said the setting of the proposed remuneration was done unilaterally, however, he rejected any suggestion his proposed pay for councillors Walker and Benson-Pope was politically motivated or out of spite.

He claimed he was unaware of the tradition of deputy chairs being paid the same as all other councillors.

Remuneration Authority chair Geoff Summers said the authority did not think it could approve what was proposed and say it was complying with the law.

It had sent the proposal back to Dunedin City Council, which would vote on a new proposal on Tuesday, which would address most of the pay cut for Walker and Benson-Pope.

Summers said the authority often sent proposals back to councils for them to reassess, but conceded Radich's first proposal was unprecedented in its attempt to drastically cut councillors' remuneration.

"This is at the upper end of the reasons why [proposals would be sent back to the council]," Summers said.

"This is quite unusual but it is only the second time this system has been used."

Under the new proposal to go to council on Tuesday, Walker and Benson-Pope would receive $72,783 per year, still less than the $77,982 deputy chairs would receive.

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