Something amiss at the DCC: Butcher

The new Dunedin City Council, with Fliss Butcher (in pink) in the centre of the back row. The...
The new Dunedin City Council, with Fliss Butcher (in pink) in the centre of the back row. The three other women councillors are also shown in pink. ODT graphic.
Only the cost of a by-election has stopped Dunedin City Councillor Fliss Butcher resigning from the council she was elected to just over a month ago. She says she has been sidelined and that part of the reason is that she is a woman. Mark Price reports.

There is likely to be one empty chair at Monday's Dunedin City Council meeting. Cr Fliss Butcher is not planning to be there.

"I'd rather not be. Not at the moment. My doctor's told me to take a couple of months off."

Cr Butcher is staying in North Otago.

She declined to discuss her medical condition.

"It's nobody's business actually except my business and my family's and my doctor's business, what's wrong."

Although she had not applied for sick leave prior to talking to the Otago Daily Times she had been told the matter would be considered by the council on Monday.

"If council doesn't approve, if they all decide to be vindictive and say `no we're not going to let Fliss take some time off to get better,' I'll have to come back, won't I?"

In telephone interviews this week, Cr Butcher was angry at her treatment by Mayor Dave Cull and despondent about her council position.

Cr Fliss Butcher leads a group running for world harmony into the Octagon, in 2008. Photo from...
Cr Fliss Butcher leads a group running for world harmony into the Octagon, in 2008. Photo from the ODT files.
"If it wasn't going to cost a by-election, I would resign. But it's going to cost a by-election so I'm not going to.

"I'll just have to pull myself together and get back there, which I will do."

A by-election would cost about $150,000.

Cr Butcher traces her council problems back to a meeting with new mayor Mr Cull last month when he was deciding which councillors to nominate to fill which council roles.

Cr Butcher wanted the chair of the council's planning and environment committee.

Instead, Mr Cull nominated fellow Greater Dunedin councillor Kate Wilson, who was later confirmed in the job by the full council.

"I wasn't even asked," Cr Butcher said. "So, for me it was all about the [Greater Dunedin] ticket.

"I was told Kate was given the position of chair of planning and environment because she had a legal background. And so did [previous chairman] Michael Guest.

"Before that, it was done by a retailer - Syd Brown - so I don't see why suddenly you need to have a legal background to be chairing things like urban design and heritage and maybe dog bylaws. Gee, that's a hard one isn't it?"

Cr Butcher was offered the deputy chair position under Cr Wilson.

"First of all I said 'oh, OK.' I was so shocked.

"I woke up the next morning and ... I realised what was actually going on - that quite literally I was being stabbed in the back.

"I thought, well, I need to take some time off here and just consider my future."

Cr Butcher said she was the only councillor in the previous term who undertook academic study, completing a master's in entrepreneurship to add to her management and education degrees.

"So, I'm actually the most highly qualified councillor around that table academically with the current academic skills.

"We're talking merit here remember. Merit and experience and skills.

"Nobody else did anything like that except me. I did it and I helped look after my grandchildren at the same time."

She also describes as "sinister" being "sidelined" for the chair of a second committee.

"If it's all about merit and the right person for the job, why was I sidelined for the chair of community development and it was handed to Bill Acklin when I've been the deputy chair for the last three years.

"What's that about?"

She suggests that with Greater Dunedin holding only five council positions, Mr Cull's nominations were political.

"He needed to get some of the old guard to back him so he's given them key positions.

"He's made sure that he's got some lads in there so when it comes to the vote he knows he's got their support."

Cr Butcher claims being a woman counted against her.

"I see it as a gender issue for me particularly because I'm a feminist and I'm well known to be a feminist.

"I see it as a way for the status quo to try and squash what I have been trying to achieve."

Mr Cull this week rejected Cr Butcher's allegations and said gender had been "irrelevant" when making his nominations.

"The criteria for proposing people to positions - which is all that I can do - is not based on how long someone's been here or their gender or anything else.

"It's based on a number of factors like qualifications, suitability for the job, compatibility with, for instance, deputies and what other jobs they may be better suited to.

"That applies to all councillors in all positions.

"I have been at pains to point out to all the councillors, and I think most of them agree, there are a huge number of other positions in council that are every bit as important as chairs.

"A good number of those used to be done by Cr Butcher. She's chosen not to want to do that."

Cr Butcher describes as "rubbish" Mr Cull's statement that gender played no part.

"Whenever I raise the subject, I'm told don't be silly. It's not about gender. It's about merit and it's about effort in.

"Well, I've been putting plenty of effort in over the last six years and I'm sorry, that one doesn't wear with me.

"It's not about effort. It's about gender and it's about jobs for the boys."

When approached by the ODT, Cr Wilson would not discuss the chair issue but when asked about the gender imbalance on the council said that was a decision made by the electorate.

"It wasn't anyone else. Four out of 15 of us are women but that's no one else's fault except for the electorate.

"That's the hand that you are dealt."

She did not believe there was a gender bias in the way the council worked.

"No, I don't. Fliss and I have had interesting discussions about these things before."

However, she could see how women councillors could become frustrated.

"If you look historically, the processes of council are very old and generally have been set by men years ago and they are not necessarily a format that works well for women representatives.

"It can frustrate people.

"It's not something for people who think they are going to get in, get their hands dirty and get out.

"It is a very long-winded procedural process."

Cr Wilson said she had tried to encourage women to stand for council "but, women maybe aspire to better things than standing on council".

"You don't have to be on council and be a woman to make a difference. I think there are wonderful women that we can engage in the community to really help the city but don't actually have to be on the council either."

She believed men enjoyed the "theatrics of politics" more than women and were also more comfortable being in the media.

"It's an interesting process under the spotlight and never being in control of your quotes or whatever you might say, is not a situation that a lot of women, by their very nature, enjoy."

Cr Butcher says she wanted to be a politician from about the age of 16 but did not have the confidence when she was younger.

Now she was questioning why women would want to be on the council.

"Why would you want to put yourself through it?"And then we are told we are so emotional.

"It's OK for the men. They can stand around and be bullies like certain people in there are ... they can stand around and be bullies and shout at people and get the message across that way.

"Women, yes we are emotional. We take things to heart. We take them personally.

"You have a bit of a cry and then you are told you are weak; you can't cope; you shouldn't be there."

Cr Butcher says her husband is "just incredibly supportive and obviously wants me to get well".

"He'd love me to resign. He would have loved me to resign a few years ago but I just hung in there and said 'no, no, no. It'll come right'."

Asked when she might return, Cr Butcher says: "I don't know. When my doctor says I'm capable of coming back. Right now I'm not. I will be. I will be fine. But at the moment I'm not."


• Mayor, Dave Cull (Greater Dunedin).
• Deputy Mayor Chris Staynes (Greater Dunedin).

Main committees -
• Finance and strategy: Chairman, Syd Brown; deputy chairmen, John Bezett and Richard Thomson (Greater Dunedin); members, all councillors.
• Infrastructure services: Chairman, Andrew Noone; deputy chairman, Lee Vandervis; members, all councillors.
• Community development: Chairman, Bill Acklin; deputy chairman, Paul Hudson; members, all councillors.
• Planning and environment: Chairwoman, Kate Wilson (Greater Dunedin); deputy chairwoman, Teresa Stevenson; members, all councillors.


The rules for by-elections are contained in the Local Electoral Act 2001.

Section 117 states, in part:
•  If a vacancy occurs in ... a local authority ... more than 12 months before the next triennial general election, the vacancy must be filled by an election.
If a vacancy occurs ... 12 months or less than 12 months before the next triennial general election ... the local authority ... must ... determine ... the vacancy will be filled by the appointment ... of a person ... qualified to be elected as a member; or that the vacancy is not to be filled.
• If the vacancy is for the office of mayor, the vacancy must not be left unfilled.



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