Council staff 'extremely unprofessional' towards Gore Mayor Ben Bell at times, board chair says

6:10 pm on 15 May 2023
Ben Bell, Gore

Gore Mayor Ben Bell has been called on to resign. Photo: Supplied / Facebook

The effort to oust Gore Mayor Ben Bell is "ridiculous", Mataura Community Board chair Nicky Coats says.

Coats says the Gore District Council would achieve very little other than creating further disharmony by voting on a motion of no confidence in the 24-year-old mayor on Tuesday.

Bell and the council chief executive Stephen Parry are not speaking and the fallout of their fractured relationship is clearly reverberating around the council table.

Last week, deputy mayor Keith Hovell and the man appointed to act as a go-between for Parry and Bell, councillor Richard McPhail, met with Bell and called on him to resign.

Then on Friday, Hovell and McPhail invited the majority of Gore's councillors to meet with Internal Affairs staff, but did not invite Bell or close ally, councillor Robert McKenzie.

The council will on Tuesday vote on a trio of motions at an extraordinary meeting - a vote of no confidence in Bell; a call to meet with the local government minister to discuss intervention; and to strip Bell of his positions on the council's committees.

Coats was shocked by the council's actions.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," she told RNZ today.

"He was elected as a member to represent our community and he was voted in by the ratepayers of Gore. There's absolutely no way he should be standing down or removed from committees."

Coats, who like Bell was in her first-term in the role, said the young mayor had been nothing but helpful to her and others on the community board.

That stood in contrast to the council, which had not provided much direction into how the board should be run, she said.

For months RNZ had heard rumours that behind-closed-doors Bell had been treated rudely or with a lack of respect, but neither Bell nor his allies had been willing to speak publicly on the topic before now.

When asked if Coats had witnessed this, she said: "Yes, I have witnessed that myself".

She said the behaviour of staff towards Bell had been "extremely unprofessional" at times.

Last Friday, the council held governance training for councillors and community board members.

It was due to start at 9am, but not everyone got that message, Coats said.

"[Bell] was given an incorrect start time. Him and Joe [Stringer] and Caveman [Robert McKenzie] were all given the incorrect start time of 10 o'clock," she said.

The training was meant to run until 3pm, but it was wrapped up early so Keith Hovell and the eight other councillors could meet with Internal Affairs staff.

Hovell told RNZ over the weekend he was not answering questions until Tuesday's meeting.

Coats said she had been inundated with messages of support for Bell.

Among those on his side was Young Elected Members co-chair, and Franklin Local Board member, Logan Soole.

"I'm really concerned, purely because that vote of no confidence does nothing but cause more division in the public sphere," Soole said.

"What they need to do is proceed with that independent investigation and implement the recommendations that come out of it. Not do this grandstanding in front of the public."

Local Government New Zealand president Stuart Crosby also disagreed with the council's proposed actions at Tuesday's meeting.

"There are three recommendations and all of them won't be particularly helpful," he said.

"The motion of no confidence is simply symbolic. Obviously Mayor Bell was democratically elected and he doesn't have to go anywhere."

He had recently spoken to Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty and the minister had little appetite to intervene, Crosby said.

LGNZ had helped facilitate the mediation between Bell and Parry, but it broke down, Crosby said.

"My understanding was the independent mediator chose to withdraw due to the process from one of the participants - I don't know which one it was. But sadly it did break down very early on in the process."

He described the situation surrounding Parry's contract extension - which occurred behind-closed-doors two days before October's local elections - as "extraordinary".

Crosby also described the deputy mayor leading the charge to have the mayor resign as a "very peculiar situation".

"I think it just shows the depth now of the challenge that Gore now finds itself in and it does need to now extract itself into the daylight," Crosby said.

"One of the first things that any elected member does at the first council meeting is to take an oath and within that oath it talks about acting in the best interests of the community and abiding by the various pieces of legislation, and I would encourage everybody in Gore - all the elected members - to go back and read that.

Meanwhile, a petition calling for Parry to resign has garnered more than 3000 signatures.

Council responds

In response to questions about Coats' claims, the Gore District Council said: "Council staff have and will continue to act professionally in all their dealings with elected members".

The council acknowledged Friday's training was cut short so the majority of councillors could attend the meeting with Internal Affairs organised by Hovell and McPhail.

Also in attendance were Parry and the council's community lifestyle services general manager Rex Capil.

The council also acknowledged councillors were sent an incorrect start time for the training.

"All councillors had been sent emails with the correct time in the weeks beforehand, and the training was put into their council diaries at the correct time. Unfortunately, the day before the training an email was sent to all councillors with a table of council meetings, which had the incorrect time.

"Staff acknowledged and apologised for the error at the internal training day."

The council laid the blame on Bell for a lack of direction provided to the Mataura Community Board.

"A two-day training retreat had been organised for the incoming council prior to October's election," the council said.

"This would have involved the Mataura Community Board and been held in Gore. Given the delay in confirming the mayoralty, it was suggested the workshop be rescheduled to the new year. However, the mayor informed staff his PA was working on a retreat. Another offer of training was made in January - this was declined."

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