Council squabbling reveals sad state of affairs

Lee Vandervis.
Lee Vandervis.
The recent shutting down of discussion in a DCC meeting by Cr Kate Wilson and subsequent airing of the emails preceding the meeting have exposed the playground bullying among some council members.

In this case, the council members who regularly belittle those who do not share their views were unaware that the equivalent of someone filming the bullying had taken place, namely Cr Lee Vandervis being in a position to provide emails showing what had actually happened.

The underlying frustration from Cr Vandervis is a natural reaction to a council which does most of its work behind closed doors and without keeping some of the councillors in the loop.

Mayor Dave Cull has for many years kept Cr Vandervis and others away from the hub of the decision-making, any part in chairmanship of the top committees, and the sharing of information.

Over two years ago, Cr Vandervis raised the idea of a Unitary Authority. Cr Benson-Pope told him to ‘‘stop bleating’’ and put forward a motion. Cr Vandervis duly did, and the staff were to prepare a report with pros and cons and a way forward. This resolution was then passed unanimously.

Two years later, the report had not been produced and the progressing of it had been given low priority by the staff.

Cr Vandervis asked on March 1 when the report would come to council. By March 21, he was suggesting that his requests were routinely being stonewalled or answered late, for which Dr Bidrose apologised, saying she thought she had answered.

By the end of March, the bullying machine was fully operational.

Cr Benson-Pope suggested in an email that ‘‘Perhaps applying the recently agreed charging policy would help our vexatious colleague focus’’. (This is the policy about charging those who ask for information from the DCC if the requests become too cumbersome).

Cr Stedman sent an email which began with ‘‘I don’t think the other elected members care to be honest Lee . . .’’

Mayor Cull contributed by saying it was up to Dr Bidrose to decide work priorities, as if carrying out a council resolution was something that could just be shelved.

Cr Benson-Pope brought the issue back to the council meeting to overturn the previous request for a report. He then explained his point of view, and Cr Wilson moved a motion to stop any further discussion on the basis that Cr Vandervis was using his inquiries about the whereabouts of the report for electioneering, and that since she was not standing again it didn’t matter if she moved this motion.

So keen was Mayor Cull to accept this motion that he failed to grasp that it was not able to be put, since the requisite numbers of people had not spoken to the motion.

Crs O’Malley, Hawkins, Elder, Vandervis and Whiley opposed the motion to shut down any discussion.

Cr Whiley has since said that democracy had not been allowed to take place.

And Mayor Cull has described the motion as completely democratic.

Mayor Cull made various allegations about Cr Vandervis, including that Cr Vandervis suggesting Dr Bidrose had failed to execute council decisions was harassment and plainly wrong, was tantamount to bullying, and that Cr Vandervis had a propensity to abuse women. He threatened Cr Vandervis with public censure.

Whether there was good reason for the failure to prepare a report, the comment by Cr Vandervis along the lines that it hadn’t been provided to council was patently accurate. As for the balance of the wide-ranging allegations made by Mayor Cull, they appear from the email trail to vary between wrong, petulant, ill advised and improper.

It is deeply disturbing that the old guard of councillors, with the mayor leading the charge, have been teaching the new ones that trying to shut down debate and questions is an appropriate way of forcing a councillor into submission.

The last time the council had a serious attempt at shutting Cr Vandervis down was in 2015.

Voters must have believed at some level that Cr Vandervis asking questions and doing what he does was a good thing, since after that attempt he was reelected as the highest-polling councillor.

The second-highest polling councillor in the last election interestingly was Cr Whiley, who spoke up in defence of democracy and letting the recent discussion happen.

And the third-highest polling councillor was Cr Hawkins, who also voted against shutting down discussion.

It would seem that the voters have a good grasp on who may be behaving well and serving the interests of democracy on their behalf.

We can only hope that councillors will reflect on the fallout from this sorry saga and that they may at least realise that bullying elected representatives with gratuitous and groundless allegations is inadvisable: even when you do so behind closed doors, you may be found out — or voters might just have the intuition to understand who stands up for them. —

Hilary Calvert is a former lawyer, politician and city councillor.


Who stands up for the Staff?

Being 'frustrated' is no justification for uncivility.
We may, or may not, like that which is deemed PC, but there are now legal constraints on some behaviours in the workplace.

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