DCC: Dysfunction or show of 'co-operative spirit'?

A new visitor to the public gallery at the Dunedin City Council's meeting this week might have wondered what they had walked into.

The meeting was notable for what one councillor described as "robust debate" by "strong-willed individuals", or what could also be described as some bitter sniping between opponents.

Both of those views - and some quite different analyses - came through when councillors were asked what they thought of last Monday's council meeting, and behaviour at the council table about nine months into the triennium.

Monday's council meeting was not the most fractious in the last few years, but it certainly struggled at times under the weight of what appeared to be tensions that exist around the council table.

It was not helped by a move to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, and a single microphone that meant hearing was difficult and that Cr Teresa Stevenson refused to use despite being told to by Mayor Dave Cull.

Cr Fliss Butcher has been sniping at Mr Cull regularly since she returned to the council this year.

After walking out on the new council's first meeting in October, having lost out on any major council appointments under the new mayor, she launched a scathing attack on Mr Cull's committee selections, accusing him of political and gender bias.

In November, it emerged Cr Butcher had applied for a leave of absence on health grounds.

In May, she said a serious breakdown was behind her decision to cut back on the amount of council work she was undertaking, including missing a number of meetings.

Last month, the third-term councillor said she would not seek another term but wanted to "shake a few cages" before she left.

On Monday, Mr Cull lost patience with Cr Butcher, saying: "I'm the one who allows people to speak; do you wish to speak?"

Cr Stevenson often cannot find another councillor to second her motions, meaning they lapse, and she is often pulled up for failing to follow meeting protocols, an issue that clearly irritated Mr Cull - more than once - on Monday.

Cr Lee Vandervis regularly raises the hackles of councillors, with his speech on debt and council finances described by Cr Colin Weatherall on Monday as a "diatribe".

Cr John Bezett also took exception to Cr Vandervis' input on Monday, calling a point of order on the grounds of "repetition" - claiming Cr Vandervis' speech criticising the council's budget had been heard before.

Mr Cull did not accept that was a point of order, but did caution Cr Vandervis against repeating himself.

Some of the meeting's evident acrimony has a history.

Last month, Cr Bezett accused Mr Cull of "rushing over" an agenda item to make sure a previous decision, backed by Greater Dunedin councillor Jinty MacTavish, stayed in the council's annual plan.

There have been rumblings behind the scenes at the council that Greater Dunedin councillors Mr Cull and Crs Kate Wilson, Richard Thomson, MacTavish and Chris Staynes hold private meetings to caucus issues before public meetings, so the five votes at their disposal could help provide a majority.

Mr Cull responded to similar claims in the past, challenging opponents to spend time checking who voted for what, rather than making accusations, and he noted this week none had risen to his challenge.

Councillors had widely differing views on what occurred at Monday's meeting.

Many mentioned the lack of a proper sound system, and a number mentioned the behaviour of particular councillors by name, but only off the record, as adding to disruption at meetings.

Another issue suggested as a problem was Mr Cull's relaxation of a rule of standing to speak at council meetings, with the argument councillors were less disciplined in their approach, and more likely to chip in with comments when they were sitting down.

Some thought a hypothetical new arrival in the public gallery would have seen democracy at work, with robust debate on some contentious issues, but resolution at the end of the meeting on the way forward.

In particular, a compromise agreement that solved debate over the timing of the council's response to climate change, and a decision to reconsider the John Wilson Ocean Dr issue, both of which went through 11-3, were raised as proof by a number of councillors that, despite any tension, the council was able to compromise and move forward.

Whether reopening a debate that has been dragging on for years and that many have said should have been solved one way or the other a long time ago is a marker of success or quite the opposite will have to be left up to the reader to decide.

The council's decision to make a decision on climate change, then change that for another decision, could raise similar questions.

Mr Cull described councillors at the meeting as "displaying an admirable co-operative spirit".

What the councillors say

Councillors were asked their views on Monday's council meeting, the sort of - at times - acrimonious behaviour round the council table, why it was in evidence, and what, if anything, needed to be done. These are the responses:

Cr Fliss Butcher placed the issue square in the lap of Mr Cull.

"I think Dave Cull is finding it hard to chair meetings, and keep councillors in line," she said.

That was despite what she said was Cr Teresa Stevenson's inclination to "push the boundaries" at meetings.

Cr Butcher said she had raised the issue of Greater Dunedin meeting outside the council during a non-public meeting.

"I've been told by the mayor that's not correct.

"I'll take that on trust.

"It certainly feels like that at times."

Cr Colin Weatherall agreed there was "a slight degree" of antagonism at council meetings, both between individuals and groups.

That, in turn, did create a degree of dysfunction.

He would not name names of councillors that were disrupting meetings with their behaviour on the record, but said there was "a lack of good debate, at times".

"The mayor is working extremely hard," Cr Weatherall said.

"We need to return to showing a little bit more respect to the role of the mayor, and the chair of meetings.

"Some of us are not making it easy at times."

For Cr Neil Collins, the issue was one of "a bit of fractiousness between one or two personalities".

"I think it's something Dave Cull is trying to put a lid on."

"It's always going to happen when you get strong personalities in a room together."

Cr Collins said Mr Cull had to "rise above" the personal comments.

Cr Syd Brown borrowed a quote from writer and psychotherapist Dr Barton Goldsmith, a quote he said he carried around with him in his folder.

"People who have self respect do not need to put others down to feel better about themselves.

"By maintaining your poise you keep your dignity as well as your focus and the respect of those around you."

Cr Brown said he did not want to comment on the way his colleagues presented themselves.

But councillors were elected to represent the community, required the support of at least seven other councillors to get a majority, and "burning bridges through personal attacks" did not help in that respect.

But Cr John Bezett said he did not agree the council was dysfunctional.

"It's a council of individuals who have got their own ideas about what they want to achieve while they are on council.

"While I say individuals, there is no question there is a political party there, with the Greater Dunedin team, though I don't see that as disruptive or causing any real division at all."

He was aware of talk of caucuses being held by Greater Dunedin, but Mr Cull had said publicly that did not happen, and Cr Bezett said he believed that.

"We do have individuals who may be disappointed they are not getting their message across.""I don't have that problem."

Cr Kate Wilson said the council had all the makings of a good council, but needed to keep personality politics out.

"We need to work collaboratively for the good of the city."

On the issue of Greater Dunedin, of which she was a member, Cr Wilson said the organisation had not articulated well it was not a political party, but a group of individuals who wanted to achieve things for the city.

Cr Andrew Noone said Monday's meeting was "not too dissimilar to a lot of other meetings in the last six months".

"There's a bit of healthy tension around the table. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as long as democracy prevails."

Cr Richard Thomson said he felt the council was working well, as it had during the annual plan hearings and deliberation.

"That was actually a really positive process."

Councillors could disagree strongly around the table, but still work together away from it.

Cr Bill Acklin felt the same way.

He said Monday's meeting "went a lot smoother than others have".

In particular, issues like climate change and John Wilson Ocean Dr, both of which were contentious, had been dealt with collaboratively despite the strong views people held about them.

And Mr Cull agreed.

Despite the "battle lines" that had been drawn on those two issues, councillors on both sides had worked together to the point the meeting was a "watershed" for co-operation.

As mayor, he expected councillors to act within the rules, and in a professional way.

Deputy Mayor Chris Staynes pointed to the two issues he said were resolved.

"Sure there was fractiousness at the meeting.

"There will always be a bit of fractiousness, a bit of playing to the gallery.

"That's what council is all about."

Cr Jinty MacTavish said she thought aspects of Monday's meeting showed signs it was a group of people who could work together.

She also mentioned the climate change and John Wilson Ocean Dr issues.

"That's not to say I enjoy all aspects of everyone's behaviour at all times.

"But I think Monday was a good starting point."

Cr Bill Acklin said he thought the meeting was, in comparison to meetings held in the past, "a lot smoother".

"There was a lot more working together with combinations of people who haven't up till now."

There were "a couple of councillors stirring", he said, but issues had been resolved.

And Cr Lee Vandervis agreed the council had improved in terms of the relationships of elected members.

After three years away, he said the contrast between Mr Cull and former mayor Peter Chin was noticeable.

"To me, it's much more respectful between councillors."

On criticism of his style by other councillors, he said that had decreased markedly, with points of order levelled against him now fewer than in the past.

"It used to happen four or five times a meeting."

Teresa Stevenson did not respond to messages left.

- david.loughrey@odt.co.nz

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