Board’s concerns evident in email trail

When the future of Strath Taieri Community Board chairman Barry Williams hung in the balance amid a racism row, emails were going back and forth. They provide a glimpse into what was going on behind the scenes. Grant Miller reports.

One Strath Taieri Community Board member was anxious to know how "the elephant in the room" was going to be dealt with.

Another said repeatedly she was "over it".

In the end, an agreed statement was arrived at, racism and sexism were regretted, and board chairman Barry Williams apologised to the community and kept his job.

The Otago Daily Times has obtained emails that provide indications about how it was considered the controversy should be handled as a pivotal meeting in Hyde loomed.

Having verbally abused a woman with a racially charged insult, Mr Williams was found to have materially breached the Dunedin City Council’s code of conduct, the council said it was appalled by the incident and it asked Mr Williams to consider resigning as board chairman. The next community board meeting was on the horizon and news media were sure to be there.

In an email on August 31, two days after the council censured Mr Williams, board member Robin Thomas laid out his concerns.

"As a board, if we do nothing we are seen to be complicit in and supportive of his stated views," Mr Thomas said.

Questions were rightly being asked about whether the board supported the chairman and racist slurs, he said.

Mr Thomas asked questions about what the process would be concerning acknowledgement of the council’s censure and he highlighted the importance of taking into consideration broad community interest.

He was not advocating for a vote of no-confidence in Mr Williams.

However, the board’s position about racist comments would remain "the elephant in the room" until it was dealt with in some form, he said.

Strath Taieri Community Board members, including Robin Thomas (left), meet at Hyde. Other people...
Strath Taieri Community Board members, including Robin Thomas (left), meet at Hyde. Other people at the table include the Dunedin City Council’s board representative Cr Bill Acklin (back, centre) and chief executive Sandy Graham (back, right). PHOTOS: PETER MCINTOSH
Mr Thomas said one way forward might be for Mr Williams to be encouraged to issue an apology to the council, board and community "for bringing this matter into the public spotlight and creating embarrassment and drawing such negative attention to our community (wording would clearly need massaging)".

"He has already apparently apologised to the victim, so taking that next step would hopefully ameliorate community angst to some degree.

"Hopefully, that should draw a line under the issue locally."

In an email on September 6 with the subject line "media response", board deputy chairwoman Anna Wilson said she would call Mr Thomas.

She pointed out the board did not yet have a formal position, as it had yet to meet.

She was disappointed in Mr Williams’ behaviour, she said.

Much of her phrasing — such as that there was no place for racism and sexism — would later be represented formally in a board statement.

"I respect the role councillors played in considering and upholding the investigator’s report into the material breach of the code of conduct," Mrs Wilson said.

"Councillors carried out their duty and a decision was made.

"Mr Williams has been censured by the council and has apologised directly to the victim. I have nothing further to add on this matter."

A member of the public had been in touch with the board the previous day.

"I am, like most of the people in our community, well aware of the furore around the [chairman’s] comments to a local woman who has subsequently left town," the person said.

Would his tenure as the community board chairman be on the agenda for the public part of the board meeting on September 14, the person wondered.

Barry Williams had been asked by the Dunedin City Council to consider resigning as Strath Taieri...
Barry Williams had been asked by the Dunedin City Council to consider resigning as Strath Taieri Community Board chairman, but he said at a board meeting on September 14 he intended to stay.
Mr Thomas had earlier worried the board might not have the opportunity to be clear "we neither endorse nor condone any form of racism, sexism or similar".

In a response to him on September 10, Mrs Wilson said "we are obviously going to have our say" on September 14.

Media and podcasts had evidently been raised and Mrs Wilson said "I feel like it is time to move on and go back to our original statement that we do not condone etc".

"I am just very over it and feel like it is going around in circles.

"I have written myself a statement as such to read on Thursday just regarding how we need to move on and focus on items such as the speed management plan."

Though she did not say it explicitly, Mrs Wilson essentially raised a problem known as double jeopardy, where a person may be punished twice for one alleged offence.

She had her job to do and trusted the council had completed its job.

"Can you tell I am over it!!"

Mrs Wilson added: "I assume Barry rang you yesterday to say he wasn’t going to co-govern."

An hour earlier, Mr Thomas had noted a social media post that reinforced for him a wide "audience" would be watching developments — "clearly confirming that the ramifications of this will have wider ramifications than just our wee patch".

"How do we make it clear this is not who we are and get it across that this incident cannot be allowed to define our community?"

At the meeting, Mr Williams apologised to the community and said he intended to carry on as chairman, but did not say why he should be allowed to do so.

Board members had the power to oust Mr Williams as chairman at the next meeting, but they did not pursue this course.

Strath Taieri Community Board deputy chairwoman Anna Wilson reads a statement on behalf of the...
Strath Taieri Community Board deputy chairwoman Anna Wilson reads a statement on behalf of the board at the September 14 meeting, when chairman Barry Williams’ breach of the code of conduct was discussed.
They never pursued a symbolic vote of no-confidence, either.

After Mr Williams declared he would not step aside, the Otago Daily Times asked board members if they were prepared to rule out a change of chairperson.

"If board members do not vote in a new chairperson, how should this be reconciled with the statement about them strongly believing there is no place for racism and sexism?"

No reply was received.

The statement

Statement from the Strath Taieri Community Board on September 14:

"As a board, we are disappointed in [Barry] Williams’ comments. We strongly believe there is no place for racism or sexism in our community, or anywhere else for that matter.

"We respect the role councillors played in considering and upholding the independent investigator’s report into the material breach of the code of conduct.

"Councillors decided to censure Mr Williams, and he has apologised directly to the victim. This is exactly what needed to happen.

"As a board, we have not been involved in the code of conduct process, but I would also like to acknowledge my fellow members who, over the last few weeks, have been subject to relentless verbal abuse, threats and harassment on an unprecedented level.

"Every one of us needs to be kind and learn from recent experiences, and my hope is we all reflect on this as a community. As a board, we are intent on ensuring we move on from this experience in a positive and inclusive manner.

"The board has plenty of issues still to tackle that also affect our community, and we now need to focus on these. That is what we were elected to do, and we are looking forward to doing that work."