DCC silent on evidence behind allegations

Lee Vandervis
Lee Vandervis
The Dunedin City Council is refusing to say if it has evidence to substantiate allegations of verbally abusive behaviour levelled at Cr Lee Vandervis by Mayor Dave Cull.

Council staff, responding to an official information request from the Otago Daily Times, declined to release information about any staff complaints filed against Cr Vandervis.

To do so would breach Cr Vandervis' privacy, as well as that of staff who complained, the response said.

The council also declined to say whether details of any complaints had been released to Cr Vandervis, again citing his right to privacy.

Instead, the council noted only that two complaints relating to well-publicised incidents involving Cr Vandervis and female staff had led to a Code of Conduct hearing in 2015.

The outcome led to Cr Vandervis being censured and stripped of voting rights for two months.

Cr Vandervis again ignored requests for comment, including on whether he would waive his privacy and release details of any complaints.

The ODT has referred the council's decision to the Office of the Ombudsman.

Dave Cull
Dave Cull
The allegations stemmed from a row over a stalled unitary council investigation, which became public when emails emerged showing Mr Cull had accused Cr Vandervis of repeatedly harassing female staff.

In one, Mr Cull accused Cr Vandervis of "harassment, tantamount to abuse and bullying" after repeated questioning of council chief executive Sue Bidrose in emails about the stalled report.

Contacted later, Mr Cull went further, telling the ODT he was also privy to reports by "numerous" female council employees who had been left distressed either as a result of an encounter with Cr Vandervis or in anticipation of one.

The allegations related both to emails sent by Cr Vandervis and some of his face-to-face interactions with staff.

Cr Vandervis has ignored ODT requests for comment on the allegations in recent weeks.

Instead, he has released copies of more than 40 email exchanges with council staff and elected members, including Mr Cull.

The emails document his repeated demands for answers on a variety of issues, including the unitary council investigation.

They do not contain swearing, but neither do they address allegations of face-to-face verbal abuse. Instead, the emails show Cr Vandervis questioning the integrity of council staff.

That included accusing Dr Bidrose of "failing to execute her responsibility" to deliver the unitary council report, going beyond her authority in deprioritising the work, "stonewalling" requests for information and using "weasel words" to justify her actions.

The allegations were vehemently denied by Dr Bidrose, as well as other staff involved in the exchanges and Mr Cull, who said they were "plainly wrong".

Cr Vandervis later took aim at a female staff member, emailing to suggest her "ignorance" of standing orders - together with that of Mr Cull - had allowed a closure motion to be improperly used to stymie debate on the unitary council investigation.

That was "disturbing, given your positions", Cr Vandervis told her, before signing off with: "Looking forward to your apology by return for not knowing and subsequently misrepresenting this Standing Order."

He later suggested "mayoral pressure" might have contributed to the staff member's mistake, but also that Dr Bidrose "must also bear the responsibility for blocking the [report]".

Dr Bidrose accepted mistakes had been made but rejected any suggestion of mayoral pressure or blocking, saying those were a "serious allegation of wrongdoing".

And, when Cr Vandervis suggested Dr Bidrose's "actions and inactions" had led to "so many unanswered questions and so much dysfunction", Dr Bidrose fired back with a heated response.

"I suggest you would do well to examine your pivotal role in the dysfunction. I have not abused people, implied they are deliberately misrepresenting the truth, made good people cry.

"It isn't your tone that is the issue. It is your attacks on people's integrity, their professional ethics, their competence. This amounts to bullying according to most reasonable definitions and a majority of your colleagues."

The ODT first requested details of complaints against Cr Vandervis on May 2, but the council extended the 20-working-day deadline for a response, giving it until June 28.

The response, finally released on Thursday, declined to release details, but instead outlined steps taken to keep staff safe in future.

That included a new email quarantine policy and a requirement for general managers to sit alongside more junior staff when they addressed council and committee meetings.

Councillors were now also only able to question executive and group managers, and governance support staff, and staff below management level no longer had to add their names to reports.

A new confidential database had also been established, making it easier for staff to report abuse.

Comments

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Leaving notes is passive aggressive. Is the Cr furious in person?

1984 writ large. Free speech is under direct assault.

Thought crime. Hate crime. Jail time. Screech the unhinged.

This new pitchfork mob mentality seeks to suppress any opinion it does not like, using the power of the state. Having your feelings hurt is one thing. Abusing the power of the state in a corrupt manner, is another.

The antagonism between these two men has become a major distraction and the public is fed up with it. When Cull steps down perhaps it will settle, but Vandervis should be on notice that his behaviour contributes to these dramas and in spite of him making valid points at times, his reputation is a real problem and so are his relationships with fellow councillors and staff. Councillors need to get on with the job and stop bickering - the DCC has far more important things to worry about than childish tantrums and fractious egos. Ratepayers expect some maturity and deserve better than this nonsense.

What needs to happen is councillors (and staff) need to answer the questions put to them, the alleged 'crying' etc is just a distraction designed to elicit a response against certain councillors.

I cry every time I get my rates bill. Can I accuse the council of bullying and harassment?

Classic bureaucracy behaviour. "Mistakes have been made", but woe betide anyone who points them out.

Judging by the above quotes, Ms Bidrose could do with a bit of sensitivity training herself.

Sounds like there is going to be so many support animals at the DCC, it's going to end up turning into a petting zoo.

Can't wait for the elections, so council can get on with the core issues that ratepayers deserve and cut out all the sneaky agendas and behind closed doors blocking nonsense.

The 2015 incidents are certainly no indication that these latest allegations are not spurious because a strong argument can be made that the 2015 incidents were ALSO spurious and that the 2015 Code of Conduct process was merely misused by Cr Vandervis’s political opponents. Before it had independent input, the DCC Code of Conduct process could be and was misused in respect of other councillors besides Cr Vandervis, most notably Cr Teresa Stevenson, when she blew the whistle on Mayor Chin’s attempt to unilaterally (and secretly) sell off DCC social housing stock in return for government Stadium funding. Stevenson got done for a ‘confidentiality breach’ and Mayor Chin was not even rebuked by anyone, let alone censured. The victors write history and this has been true for decades of the power-holding majority at the DCC under leadership of both Mayor Chin and Mayor Cull. Nor has past ODT council reporting IMO always got it right but IMO tended towards the assumption that whatever a socially important person like a mayor says must be true,

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