Houlahan thought texts 'polite'

Carmen Houlahan. Photo: ODT files
Carmen Houlahan. Photo: ODT files
An investigator has found Dunedin’s mayor and a councillor breached the city council’s code of conduct. ODT council reporter Grant Miller takes a closer look.

Dunedin city councillor Carmen Houlahan implied her colleague was stupid and untrustworthy and accused her of acting in a way that was "cold, calculated and nasty", but she thought her messages were "almost entirely polite".

She also believed many were highly respectful and any negative commentary was about process, rather than a personal attack against the deputy mayor at the time, Sophie Barker.

Investigator Jordan Boyle, a partner at Dyhrberg Drayton Employment Law, did not agree.

Some comments were particularly disrespectful and extremely personal, he said.

He concluded Cr Houlahan had breached the Dunedin City Council’s code of conduct and the breach was material.

"That is a high threshold, but this behaviour reaches it," Mr Boyle said.

"I consider it brings Cr Houlahan into disrepute."

The council accepted the findings on Tuesday and Cr Houlahan was asked to write an "appropriate" apology.

It was not clear last night whether Cr Barker intended to accept an apology issued yesterday afternoon, as she was unsure what the council meant by appropriate.

The complaint by Cr Barker arose after a Radio New Zealand interview in August of Dunedin Mayor Jules Radich about the council’s censure of Strath Taieri Community Board chairman Barry Williams for a racial slur.

Cr Barker and Cr Jim O’Malley complained about the mayor breaching council confidentiality by disclosing extra information and they argued he undermined the council’s stance by minimising the seriousness of Mr Williams’ actions.

The complaint against the mayor led to Cr Barker receiving about eight missed calls from Cr Houlahan "in swift succession" on September 8, as well as 17 text messages on September 8-9, a report for the council said.

Initial messages were to the effect Cr Houlahan could not believe Cr Barker had complained about the mayor, saying "you would never be this stupid".

"Who could ever trust anyone like this?

"It can’t be you.

"You are his deputy. Why would you turn on him?"

Cr Barker said it was likely the mayor had breached the code of conduct and this needed to be investigated.

Cr Houlahan continued: "I rave about you but I see nothing positive about this and the way it was done is planned, cold, calculated and nasty.

"You said nothing to [Mayor] Jules [Radich] and we were all in a meeting together," Cr Houlahan said.

"Women can be successful without lowering their standards."

Mr Boyle said he did not find Cr Houlahan’s explanation — that she had not believed Cr Barker to be behind the complaint against the mayor — to be credible.

"While her messages were framed in this way, in my view this was for the purpose of being critical of Cr Barker."

Comments about Cr Barker dividing the council were considered by Cr Houlahan to be about process, rather than being personal.

Mr Boyle’s report noted Cr Houlahan kept trying to reach Cr Barker, "because she wanted to find out what happened".

Cr Houlahan suggested reasons for calls not being answered might have included Cr Barker not finding her phone in her bag in time.

Cr Houlahan observed media knew of the complaint about the mayor before councillors did.

Mr Boyle said he understood her point about it being a heated political situation, but this submission did not carry much force.

"In addition, the messages continued the following day in more detail, despite Cr Barker’s measured response."

Cr Houlahan apologised on September 11 for the number of calls and messages, but Cr Barker did not accept this, noting the apology did not deal with the content of the messages.

Mr Boyle concluded Cr Houlahan had failed to conduct her dealings with Cr Barker in a way that was courteous and focused on issues, rather than personalities, and she had failed to avoid offensive conduct.

"I consider Cr Houlahan’s actions were unacceptable, particularly in a professional environment."

Cr Houlahan said she accepted the findings.

"I have apologised to Cr Barker.

"I wish to move on from this and look forward to working positively with all my council colleagues in the new year."

In their September exchange of messages, Cr Barker said the council had a duty "to uphold our own rules" and her complaint about the mayor related to whether he had breached the code.

She stood down as deputy mayor soon after laying the complaint.

Cr Barker said yesterday recent months had been challenging and she was relieved the matters had been cleared up before Christmas.