Firebrand councillor: case for and against

Cr Lee Vandervis.
Cr Lee Vandervis.
Anyone who believes Dunedin city councillor Lee Vandervis is the victim of a stitch-up can find material to support that view. His colleagues, however, say intimidating behaviour cannot be tolerated and Cr Vandervis is a serial offender. Grant Miller assesses the evidence.

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".

What happened?

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 Christine Garey.
Cr Christine Garey.
She spoke to a staff member, Clare Sullivan, and Cr Vandervis approached them.

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.

The defence

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.

Analysis

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 upshot

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.

Comments

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Whether one likes vdv or not, any objective observations will note hawkins, garey, benson pope and the new ceo are constantly looking to disrespect him and shut him down.

The only path to ending this is vdv publically calls for his supporters to vote raddish in. Its a kick to the ego, but the only alternative to ridding dunedin of hawkins and his bully squad. Think about it lee, this approach to electioneering will work.

Nothing whatsoever ‘objective’ about the ‘conspiracy to silence Vandervis’ theory with the present Council. Mayor Hawkins doesn’t have the voting majority to do it even if he wanted to. Only Garey, Walker, Laufiso and Benson-Pope often vote with Hawkins. The rest are true independents and are just as likely to vote with Vandervis as against him on any issue. This isn’t about political policies or ideologies. This is about personal conduct. Basic ethical question: do ANY means ( such as yelling and making scenes) justify the ends ( supposedly defending the public interest)? This is a university town and Vandervis is a Philosophy graduate. So, ODT, ask a Philosophy professor. This is primarily an ETHICAL question, not a political one.
I’d like to know if Cr Vandervis would accept a ruling from a Chair even if he thought it was wrong. Or whether he would consider it (quoting) ‘dishonest’ and ‘insincere’ for him to do so. If so, then it was dishonest and insincere for him to have made a solemn declaration to uphold the law on taking up office. Can’t have it both ways.
As for recording a private conversation, that breaches the Privacy Act and would be inadmissible as evidence.

I would have thought creating a secret dossier on an elected official by the very organization they represent would have been illegal but there you go, besides if it was legal it would have been used by now. Can't have it both ways.

Actually, so long as you verbally give yourself permission to record a conversation it is accepted as evidence in court.

A room full of the best city leaders we have and not one of them thought to pull out their phone and record the incident. After 8years and 27 reported incidents not one has thought to just pullout their phone and record? Just 5 seconds of yelling, spitting and finger jabbering aggression would surely silence Vandervise and his supporters once and for all.

A failure in basic journalism standards comes to the fore again at the ODT with it's very obvious and blatant bias in regards to Councillor Vandervis.
1/ The ODT fails in every report so far, to investigate anything about the initial incident. What right does Councilor Geary have (or any chairperson), to dismiss a point of order, BEFORE they have even heard it.
2/ No questioning at all by the ODT of -
a/ how the investigator can be independent when they have an official law society complaint against them by the very person they are supposed to be investigating,
b/ why the DCC would choose an "independent" investigator, who has a complaint against them by the person they are investigating.
c/ How the investigation could be even close to fair when they totally fail to get half of the story.

The idea that the investigation was independent, as portrayed by the ODT, is totally absurd.

What is your journalistic background?

He lost me completely at: "The reason I raised my voice to Deputy Garey was that...."
This sounds a lot like how anyone justifying their behaviour would start.

It may well be that it is convenient politically for some, for Vandervis to go, but there is no doubt that he did this to himself. Not once has he shown he understands the vast difference between the issues being discussed or debated, and what is an appropriate or inappropriate way to conduct himself. Bullying is never about the issues, and always about personal conduct.

He is a bully, there is no other way to put it.
We teach our children that this behaviour is not acceptable but allow it in the DCC.
He has actually achieved zero in office, what a massive waste of time and money.

Last week's DCC meeting where several councilors gave their opinions and observations of VDV is online, and the public can see and hear for themselves what was said. It did not make happy viewing. Strangely, Vandervis seemed unmoved.

We all know that Vandervis tosses his toys out of the cot and gets nothing done. What a massive waste of time and money.
After all of the Vandervis complains to the DCC, not one complaint was upheld costing in excess of $100,000.
Vandervis' version of politics is a relic and gets absolutely nothing done. All he dose is argue and aggravate the people he is supposedly meant to work with to archive favourable outcomes for the community, while costing everyone money.
If there was only one other person in the council Vandervis would still continue to play the blame game of someone else is wrong, I am right... that is just how he operates and it will never change.

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