16 May 2024

Hamilton councillor Melaina Huaki quit after being queried about regular absences

10:07 am on 16 May 2024
Hamilton City Council’s endorsement of the bill review makes it the fourth Council in New Zealand to show its support

Hamilton City Council. Photo: Hamilton City Council

Hamilton ratepayers fork out $1.6 million a year in salaries for their 18-member city council, but one councillor didn't attend a third of its meetings.

The rest of the councillors' attendance since November 2022 ranged between 80 and 98 percent for 20 full council meetings and 30 committee meetings.

Non-attendance is recorded in the minutes of the following meeting and councillors can be listed as absent, absent on council business, partial attendance, lateness and early departure.

RNZ collated the data between November 2022 and April this year, totalling 50 meetings and including five standing committees where all 15 councillors were members: Finance and Monitoring, Economic Development, Strategic Growth and District Plan, Infrastructure and Transport, and Community and Natural Environment.

The attendance of three Maangai Maaori representatives was 100 percent.

The elected representative with the worst attendance record, Kirikiriroa Māori Ward Councillor Melaina Huaki, resigned effective immediately citing ill health on 7 May, one day after RNZ sent questions about attendance to the council.

In total Huaki missed 17 meetings, including five full council meetings meaning she only attended 66 percent of those she could have.

She also made apologies for lateness five times, partial attendance three times, and departed early three times. None of the absences were explained.

As a "backbencher" councillor - an elected member without any extra responsibilities such as chairing a committee - Huaki was paid a salary of more than $81,000 per year.

"My decision to resign was not taken lightly," Huaki said in a statement issued by the council last week.

"It has been a huge privilege to represent Kirikiriroa as one of our city's first Maaori Ward councillors. I worked with staff to assess my options, but I need to prioritise my health at this time.

"This was the right thing to do for me, my whaanau and the city."

Hamilton mayor Paula Southgate thanked Huaki for her contribution to the council and city.

"I'm saddened to see Melaina leave council. She brought a lot of passion and a fresh perspective to the council table, ensuring the unique perspectives of tangata whenua were well-represented in our decision-making processes.

"I fully support that she is putting her health and whaanau first, and wish her all the very best."

RNZ was unable to contact Huaki.

Melaina Huaki

Melaina Huaki. Photo: Hamilton City Council / supplied

The next lowest attendance was by West Ward Councillor Geoff Taylor, who recently became deputy chairperson of the Strategic Growth and District Plan Committee, bumping his backbencher salary up to $88,889 per year.

Taylor - an author - was absent from 10 meetings, late twice and partially attended four times.

He also had nine absences from two sub-committees where not all councillors were members, although he said he was not aware initially he was on one of the committees.

The former deputy mayor, who ran against Southgate for the mayoralty in October 2022, apologised for his record.

"There was a time earlier on in the term when things were pretty tough and I was effectively shut out of any senior positions and I struggled to feel part of the team.

"But that was for a short period and I've definitely battled back, and feel like I'm contributing well now and that my input is valued again."

East Ward Councillor and Community and Natural Environment Committee chairperson Kesh Naidoo-Rauf was absent from nine meetings, late four times, partially attended four times and left early once.

Naidoo-Rauf, a pharmacist who earned $101,897 as a council chairperson, also had four absences from two sub-committees: Strategic Risk and Community Grants.

West Ward Councillor and Economic Development Committee chairperson Ewan Wilson had eight absences (though three were for council business), was late three times and partially attended once. He was also absent once each from two sub-committees.

Southgate, Deputy Mayor Angela O'Leary and West Ward Councillor Emma Pike were absent six times each, though three of the mayor's were for council business.

The mayor also partially attended eight times, was late five times, departed early once, and was absent twice from the Strategic Risk sub-committee.

Southgate, who earns around $180,000 per year, said she had pushed for more transparency on attendance and for absence explanations.

She would not comment specifically on Huaki's attendance but said a councillor could only be removed if they missed three consecutive council meetings.

She said attendance at workshops, where a lot of work was done, was not recorded because they were not formal meetings.

"There are some councillors who have attended very few of those workshops."

Southgate, who said her absences were due to extra responsibilities as mayor, had previously put on notice some members over their low attendance.

O'Leary was late for four meetings, left early twice and partially attended twice.

O'Leary, who earned $112,897 as deputy mayor, was also absent four times from two sub-committees.

East Ward Councillor Ryan Hamilton was missing from five meetings before he took a leave of absence early last July to run for Parliament. Hamilton was replaced on council in February by former Hamilton West MP Tim Macindoe.

The councillor with the best attendance was East Ward representative Andrew Bydder with only one absence and three early departures, followed by Strategic Growth and District Plan Committee chairperson Sarah Thomson with two absences, one partial attendance and one early departure.

Council governance lead Amy Viggers said there was no legal obligation to meet a minimum attendance level as long as apologies were provided.

Local Government New Zealand chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene said elected members were ultimately accountable to their communities and should take seriously the responsibilities they had in positions of public service.

"Attendance at council meetings is important. However, there are legitimate circumstances where elected members may need to attend other regional or national forums or fulfil responsibilities in their wider role to further their communities' interests.

"There will also be times when elected members will be absent for personal reasons. Circumstances differ and it's the responsibility of elected members to get their balance right."

Huaki's resignation sparked the council's second by-election in six months, expected in early August at a cost of at least $60,000.

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