Gore Mayor Ben Bell has been asked to resign by seven councillors. Photo / Sandy Eggleston
New Zealand’s youngest mayor has survived a showdown meeting with a motion of no confidence no longer being pursued.
After months of dysfunction, where Gore District Council Mayor Ben Bell and long-standing chief executive Stephen Parry no longer talk, the future of the council had been hanging in the balance.
The rift has divided the Southland town since the early days of Bell’s tenure last October, resulting in one six-term councillor resigning, citing a “highly stressful” council environment since the election.
Seven of the district’s 10 councillors, including deputy mayor Keith Hovell and councillor Richard McPhail (who has been acting as an intermediary between Bell and Parry) along with councillors Stewart MacDonell, Neville Phillips, Glenys Dickson, Paul McPhail and Bronwyn Reid met with Bell last week and asked him to resign, saying they had lost confidence in him.
Bell, who has consistently said he will see out the job that he won by just eight votes from six-term incumbent mayor Tracy Hicks, refused.
At today’s extraordinary meeting, a vote on a motion of no confidence in the mayor was not taken up.
The news brought huge cheers from a packed public gallery this afternoon.
Deputy mayor Keith Hovell tabled an amended motion that the council work with Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) to develop amended terms of reference for an independent review to restore confidence in the council.
Hovell said he was speaking out because there are “serious issues” that need to be addressed, and not calling out bad behaviour can mean it flourishes.
“I don’t want a community of whispering,” Hovell said.
He apologised for not inviting Bell and councillor McKenzie to a meeting with the DIA last week and not telling them why.
The motion was supported by all councillors, including Bell, and passed unanimously.
Speaking to the motion, councillor Dickson said the current situation was unsustainable.
“I did sign the requisition asking Ben to resign. It was more a cry for help,” she said.
“Ben, we are your allies. We are not your enemies. Our role now is to support you and the council to be the best you can.’
Councillor McKenzie said he supported the mayor, and the motion, seeing the potential “to build a bloody good team of people to do a bloody good job”.
Mayor Bell said the move to bring a motion of no confidence resulted in some of the “darkest days” of his life.
He agreed he wasn’t perfect, and nor were councillors, and that they had all made mistakes.
And he accepted that they “desperately” need help from “professionals who do it day in and day out”.
Bell agreed with councillor McPhail that there was a need to return to “the Gore way”, adding it wasn’t a town that wanted to be in the headlines all the time.
The mayor, after receiving advice, also agreed to step away from the chief executive’s Performance Appraisal Committee.
“We talked a lot about unity today,” he said.
“I don’t want to be a thorn in the side of that committee so I’m more than happy to stand aside.”
After just 24 minutes, the long-awaited meeting was concluded.
More than 100 people had gathered for the meeting. Given the furore has been the talk of the town, the meeting was live-streamed onto a big screen at the local James Cumming Community Centre.
On the council’s Facebook page ahead of the event, attendees were reminded to be “respectful and patient”.
“We know from the comments on this page in the last few days that people are passionate and hold strong views,” it said.
“Please be mindful that: Everyone is entitled to express their opinion; Attacking staff or elected members will not be tolerated; Don’t overshare.”
Mayor Bell thanked everyone for attending and said he appreciated the support, adding, “I know that the council as a whole does”.
Key figures had hunkered down ahead of the crunch meeting, including Bell. He spoke at length during TVNZ’s current affairs programme Sunday at the weekend, during which he talked about the toll the relationship breakdown had on his mental health.
Gore’s councillors contacted by the Herald yesterday either declined to comment or did not respond to approaches.
Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty earlier said he had kept tabs on the situation.
Although statutory obligations were being met, if that changed then intervention would be considered, McAnulty said.
“Councils are responsible for resolving their own problems. This is the expectation for all councils in New Zealand,” he said.
“When particular problems arise in councils, the Department of Internal Affairs works with the council to understand the nature and extent of the problem.
“I am being updated as appropriate. At the moment, statutory obligations are being met. If that changes, then intervention will be considered.”
The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) confirmed officials met with Parry “and elected members” on Friday.
A DIA spokesperson said there was a “necessarily high bar” for Crown intervention.
“The department will continue to provide advice to the Minister regarding the situation in Gore,” the spokesperson added.
On Saturday, local Gore resident Sean Burke launched a petition calling for Parry to resign.
“The people of Gore are fed up with the circus surrounding our local council and the efforts being made by a select few to oust our newly elected mayor,” it says.
“This appears to be being driven by a select few of the ‘old guard’ on council who seem more than happy to ‘leak’ stories to the press.”
He accused Parry of presiding over a bullying and “toxic” culture.
Parry, who has previously admitted to a “very strained relationship” with Bell, with trust eroding significantly, is currently away on leave.
Gore Mayor Ben Bell’s tenure
- August 2022: Bell throws his hat into the mayoralty race, standing on his own Team Hokonui ticket against six-term incumbent Tracy Hicks.
- October 8: The mayoral race on polling day is too close to call.
- October 17: Bell wins by eight votes. Hicks applies for a recount.
- October 21: It emerges that Bell’s mother, Rebecca Tayler, had been involved in a recent employment wrangle with the council. Both parties cited legal advice in refusing to speak or say how it was resolved.
- November 2: Bell is confirmed as mayor after Hicks’ recount bid is declined. The new mayor says he hasn’t heard from council chief executive Stephen Parry but Parry later shows phone logs which suggest he had in fact reached out.
- November 23: Bell chairs his first council meeting where his request to hire a personal executive assistant is voted down, with councillor Bret Highsted calling it a “vanity project”.
- November 24: Bell is on leave as seven councillors sign a requisition requesting councillor Stewart MacDonell be removed as deputy mayor.
- November 25: Councillors Highsted, Neville Phillips and Bronwyn Reid boycott a councillor’s retreat in Cromwell. The retreat was organised by Bell’s executive assistant, Shanna Crosbie, and cost nearly $7000.
- November 29: Bell returns to work. Parry says Bell’s proposed governance structure of six committees and five portfolios would cost the council $300,000 a year to run.
- December 1: Council meets behind closed doors to discuss its governance structure. At the meeting, McDonell tenders his resignation as deputy mayor.
- March 28, 2023: Council holds an extraordinary meeting to discuss issues between Bell and Parry. The council unanimously agrees to appoint a councillor to act as an intermediary between the pair on governance and relevant operational matters.
- March 30: Parry reveals his working relationship with the mayor is “very strained” and they no longer talk.
- April 3: Councillor Highsted resigns, citing a “highly stressful” council environment since the election, where he found “levels of anxiety unsustainable”.
- April 18: Council unanimously vote for an independent review into council governance to try to restore confidence. Councillors also moved to formally remove Bell from the committee that oversees Parry’s performance – and to appoint an intermediary for the two men.
- May 11: Seven councillors meet with Bell and ask him to resign. An extraordinary meeting is scheduled for May 16 for councillors to vote on a motion of no confidence in the mayor.