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Lee Vandervis is happy to concede he smirked during a serious dressing-down.
The polarising Dunedin city councillor says he did so because, though accused of yelling at the city’s deputy mayor, nobody could recall much of what he said.
He concedes he raised his voice. He apologised for that.
"The rest is hyperbole," Cr Vandervis told a reporter the day after his colleagues accepted an investigator’s finding that he behaved "aggressively, discourteously and in a manner anyone would have found intimidating".
Hyperbole? Colourful descriptions of his conduct included "screaming", "yelling" and "almost spitting"; that it was frightening, abusive, threatening, bullying and highly unprofessional; and that Cr Vandervis became red in the face.
Deputy mayor Christine Garey said Cr Vandervis stood over her, pointed his finger in her face and spoke angrily, at very high volume. She feared he might lash out physically.
Armed with investigator Steph Dyhrberg’s report that found Cr Vandervis breached the council’s code of conduct, councillors showed unity in confronting him. As Cr Chris Staynes said, "all of us have reached a point where we can no longer sit back and allow this to happen".
Cr Garey left her seat at the end of a lengthy meeting on July 28 and walked across the room to the balustrade in front of the table where council officers sit.
Cr Vandervis voiced his displeasure about the deputy mayor’s earlier ruling on a point of order.
"I responded with a firm, ‘do not speak to me like that, councillor’," Cr Garey said in her complaint.
"At this, Cr Vandervis became further enraged, more red in the face and continued to point his finger in a stabbing movement towards my face."
Cr Steve Walker intervened and stood between them.
Cr Vandervis agreed he pointed his finger, but not in stabbing motions.
"The reason I raised my voice to Deputy Garey was that she refused to listen to my description of what my point of order actually was and she cut across my initially conversational tone with the false accusation that I was ‘just having a go’."
Crs Garey, Walker and Marie Laufiso filed complaints about Cr Vandervis’ conduct and three more councillors provided comment as witnesses.
A panel comprising Mayor Aaron Hawkins and seven councillors accepted Ms Dyhrberg’s findings on the matter and "required" Cr Vandervis to publicly apologise for aggression or face being stripped of two committee roles.
Refusing to submit what he said would be an insincere apology, Cr Vandervis instead resigned from his roles with the Otago Museum Trust Board and Dunedin’s district licensing committee.
The case against the councillor
Even Cr Vandervis accepted his "loudness" crossed the line, but he refused to apologise for conduct found to be aggressive.
The code of conduct requires elected members to be courteous to each other and to avoid aggressive, offensive or abusive behaviour.
Ms Dyhrberg said all witnesses who saw or heard the exchange with Cr Garey confirmed Cr Vandervis spoke very loudly, and he was flushed and angry.
Witnesses were also consistent in highlighting a lack of space between Crs Garey and Vandervis.
Cr Garey described him as "extremely angry, aggressive, intimidating and threatening throughout". She said the incident had a considerable impact on her and her family.
Cr Laufiso called his conduct bullying.
Cr Walker labelled his outburst a tirade.
Ms Dyhrberg said it was highly unprofessional, it affected Cr Garey’s perception of her safety in her working environment and it was likely to bring both the council and Cr Vandervis into disrepute.
Crs Laufiso, Garey and Carmen Houlahan all referred to previous incidents involving Cr Vandervis. Cr Laufiso recalled him speaking with his face close to a female staff member and pointing a finger aggressively in her face.
In court, this is known as propensity evidence and it is a compelling element in the case against Cr Vandervis.
The Dunedin City Council was sufficiently worried about an apparent pattern of behaviour from him that it started a confidential file in 2012. By the middle of this year, the list of allegations had stretched to 27. Cr Vandervis dismissed the file as "manufactured rubbish" but the vast majority of incidents had witnesses.
He had also previously characterised bullying allegations against him as a smear campaign.
In the defence he presented to councillors, Cr Vandervis used up time flinging insults.
However, a few threads might have given his peers pause for thought.
Cr Vandervis delivered a key line early — "what did I actually say?"
Various witnesses reported Cr Vandervis shouting "I will point at whoever I like", which was in response to Cr Garey objecting to being pointed at. Witnesses had little recall of what else he shouted, or said.
Cr Jules Radich was in the vicinity, with his back turned, and noticed nothing.
If the proceedings were in court, a defence lawyer might have found ground to explore in comments made by Cr Mike Lord. He described Cr Vandervis as agitated, rather than aggressive.
Ms Dyhrberg said Cr Lord considered the deputy mayor "probably was shaken" but "perhaps not as upset as she later said; perhaps she was making a point because of previous incidents".
In fairness to Cr Garey, the full impact of the incident may not have sunk in straight away.
Cr Lord did notice Cr Vandervis was standing uncomfortably close to the deputy mayor, "overpowering" her with his height.
Cr Andrew Whiley described yelling, or talking loudly. He said Cr Vandervis did not lose control. His conduct was, however, "more than forceful".
Ms Sullivan said Cr Vandervis had a "raised voice" and went red in the face. She said the behaviour was threatening and confrontational.
Acting council chief executive at the time Sandy Graham, now the chief executive, described Cr Vandervis as becoming increasingly animated. She said he yelled something over his shoulder as he walked away and, afterwards, Crs Garey and Walker were visibly shaken.
Cr Vandervis may well have observed the more strident comments came from other councillors. Cr Walker, for example, accused him of "almost" spitting.
Noting witnesses had commented on his height, that he was male and that he had a ruddy complexion, Cr Vandervis pointed out he could not realistically do much about this. He made the point so abrasively, however, that he had to withdraw the comment.
In court, judges are extremely careful about the extent to which propensity evidence is allowed, because of the risk of a defendant being treated unfairly. Ms Dyhrberg said she disregarded previous incidents.
Cr Vandervis did not participate in her investigation. From the information she gathered, she said it was clear the incident happened much as the three complainants described.
Ms Dyhrberg believed witnesses did not exaggerate the severity of the incident.
Cr Laufiso thought Cr Vandervis did not appreciate the behaviour was scary and intimidating for women.
Cr Whiley said Cr Vandervis lacked insight into how he came across.
One of the more damaging comments came from Cr Vandervis himself. Responding to a claim his face was just 20cm from the deputy mayor’s, Cr Vandervis said he was "insufficiently fond" of her to get anywhere near that close.
Cr Vandervis seems not to have grasped the relevance of power dynamics.
Fondness is one reason for faces to get so close. Intimidation is another.
The altercation with Cr Garey may not harm Cr Vandervis’ brand as the elected member most devoted to keeping everyone honest with his direct style.
But councillors have had enough. They are well aware that what may have been tolerated in a previous century cannot go unchallenged now. They were as firm in their stand as the law allows them to be.
Ultimately, however, verdicts are delivered by voters.