28 Apr 2023

Gore grief: The trouble at the Gore District Council

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 28 April 2023

How did things get so bad at Gore District Council that the mayor and chief executive don't speak to each other? The Detail looks at what's behind the latest stoush in local politics.

Gore Mayor Ben Bell.


Country music and brown trout are the two big things that make Gore famous.

That was until six months ago, when 23-year-old Ben Bell was voted in as the country's youngest ever mayor.

Now it's a dysfunctional council the Southland town is associated with, and a rift so wide between the two top bosses - the mayor and the chief executive - that they're not speaking to each other.

Things are so bad an independent review is underway to find ways to restore confidence in the local body. The turmoil has prompted some to ask if Gore will go the way of Tauranga City Council, where in 2020 the council was sacked and commissioners brought in to run the city until 2024. 

"Everyone has said, we aren't there yet, we're nowhere near the need for the government to intervene and start firing people and start appointing commissioners," says RNZ Otago-Southland reporter Tim Brown, who's been covering the six months of controversies.

But the pressure is on to sort the crisis with the deadline for the annual plan looming. The annual plan should kick in from July 1, setting out the programme of work and activities for the next financial year, but the standoff has paralysed the governance process, leading to delays on the plan.

"At this point there isn't an annual plan to turn to come July 1, there isn't one signed off," says Brown.

Chief executive Stephen Parry says the council's operations are running well, but Brown believes staff are already affected by the stoush in terms of public scrutiny.

"What's the work environment like? Well, when everyone thinks quite passionately one way or the other, you're hopeless, or your leader is hopeless, it will affect you, I imagine, as a worker there."     

Brown explains to The Detail how the dramas began as soon as Bell toppled the longstanding mayor, Tracy Hicks, by just eight votes. Bell and his fellow Team Hokonui council candidates campaigned on back to basics governance. 

But Brown says it's too simplistic to say the council is split down the middle with the old guard, Tracy Hicks supporters on one side, and new blood on the other.

"It's more nuanced than that, there are people who fit into both camps sometimes and some who fit into neither camp. It was fair to say that after 18 years in charge, there was a mood that maybe Tracy had had the job long enough, but there was equally about half the town who thought after 18 years in charge this is a safe pair of hands we can trust to run the town properly," he says.

It highlights some of the issues "embedded in our national landscape", says Brown.

"It speaks to that sense of, what does local government actually do and what difference does it make if I vote? 

"I think there is a general sense where that is true, where the whole way the local government reforms were set up in the late 1980s were such that if you had a group of councillors who were dysfunctional and terrible, the services just kept on ticking on. But then it raises the question, well what is a council meant to achieve?"

Brown describes Bell as a "smart young guy, incredibly well spoken, he looks the part...he looks like he could be a politician".

Can both Bell and Parry last the term? Brown says they both agree that the current situation is untenable. Another two-and-a-half years of the council term is a long time, when the relationship between the two most senior council officers is "beyond strained".

Hear more about What's going on at Gore District Council in the full podcast episode.

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