Vandervis: 'I had to protect my reputation'

Lee Vandervis
Lee Vandervis. File photo
A Dunedin city councillor who wants to take his own council to the Supreme Court says his reputation was harmed through unprecedented misuse of the council's code of conduct.

Lee Vandervis was found to be in breach of the code concerning a disagreement in 2019 about parking, but he has argued an investigation into his conduct was flawed and a censure from the council should not be allowed to stand.

The investigation found he had engaged in loud, intimidating and aggressive behaviour towards a staff member.

Cr Vandervis went to the High Court to seek a judicial review, which was declined, and then his attempt to have the council's decision set aside by the Court of Appeal was unsuccessful.

Now he is seeking leave to take the matter to the Supreme Court.

An application was filed by his legal counsel last week, the Supreme Court confirmed.

Cr Vandervis said the council had legally won in the High Court, but "the position taken is morally indefensible because the council knows I was not given full details of the complaint or a proper opportunity to respond to the complaint before the investigator's report was provided to the council".

The council's costs from proceedings so far have been put at more than $100,000.

Cr Vandervis said he was concerned about the amount of money the council had spent on the matter, "but I had to act to protect my reputation and the council could have agreed at any time to undergo a fair process, including providing me with the complaint that would have allowed me to properly defend myself".

A council spokesman said it was aware Cr Vandervis had applied for leave to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

The council intended to exercise its right to respond after Cr Vandervis filed written evidence.

The councillor's challenge to the council's procedures, in investigating the alleged breach of the code, was tested in both the High Court and Court of Appeal, the council spokesman said.

"In both cases, our procedures have been upheld by the courts. We can provide no further comment, as the matter is now before the Supreme Court."

A lawyer for Cr Vandervis would have 20 working days to file material making the case for leave to be granted.

The council would have 15 working days to respond.

If leave is granted, there might then be a substantive hearing.

The incident at the heart of the case took place on September 13, 2019, after Cr Vandervis received a $12 parking ticket, unaware he had parked in a 30-minute zone.

The customer service staff member who dealt with him emailed then council chief executive Dr Sue Bidrose the next day to make a complaint over his conduct.

That resulted in David Benham being brought in to independently investigate.

He decided after a preliminary assessment that the complaint warranted a full inquiry and he gave his results to the council after interviewing relevant parties.

Cr Vandervis argued the complaint made by the council staff member was invalid because only the chief executive could decide to complain under the code of conduct.

The Court of Appeal did not agree.

Justices Jillian Mallon, David Collins and Graham Lang rejected that ground of appeal since it was the chief executive who formally set the wheels of the investigation in motion.

Cr Vandervis has said he was hamstrung by the fact he was not given the original complaint or witness statements.

The court, however, stressed the preliminary investigation was simply to determine whether the complaint was frivolous and, as such, did not require input from Cr Vandervis.

Justice Mallon said while the councillor was not provided with specifics of the complaint it was clear he knew enough.

"There is no doubt that Mr Vandervis knew the gist of the complaint ... There is also no doubt that he knew that he was said to have spoken loudly and inappropriately to the staff member," she said.

"We consider this was sufficient to fairly provide him with the opportunity to respond."

Cr Vandervis said his loss at the High Court "effectively prevents any councillor from being able to complain in-house about any council staff member for fear of anonymous code-of-conduct retaliation by a staff member".

He also said he had been smeared when there was publicity about the incident, which happened before the 2019 election, when Cr Vandervis contested the mayoralty.

He ended up coming second.

"I actually went into the council to advise of faulty meter signage that needed to be corrected and not to try and talk my way out of a parking ticket," Cr Vandervis said.

"I had overpaid for parked time and the $12 was never demanded of me."

He once described the staff member as "very unpleasant", which was contrary to the statements of witnesses.

The Supreme Court is the only legal avenue left for Cr Vandervis.

The entire episode has cost the council more than $100,000 — $14,148 for the initial investigation; $56,678 for the High Court case and $30,856 for the Court of Appeal.

The council previously confirmed a third party had paid the $12 ticket.



Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter