A damp squib on the winter solstice

The shortest day of the year has come and gone again, shining a few hours of light on to one of New Zealand local government’s most intriguing and bizarre fiascos.

For Invercargill’s beleaguered mayor, Nobby Clark, the solstice certainly marked the nadir of his year — to date, at least.

Yet in some ways, it also had the hallmarks of a kind of victory for the distasteful way he sometimes happens to behave in public.

A concatenation of badly judged moments and peculiar appearances at events which were highly embarrassing to those there, to the city council and to Invercargill residents, led inexorably to yesterday afternoon’s extraordinary meeting to deliberate over a second code of conduct complaint against the mayor.

The threshold which triggers action of some sort can seem difficult, or slow, to reach in local and national politics.

But when change finally does come, it can be surprisingly swift and irrevocable.

However, in this case, despite calls for him to stand down as mayor following complaints from the public, from fellow city councillors and from the Southland Business Chamber no less, the dogmatic Mr Clark remains in the hot seat, for now.

But his ongoing tenure is looking increasingly untenable.

The proverbial wet bus ticket was there at the meeting for those who wanted to slap Mr Clark on the wrist. But that’s about as bad as it got.

For a start, the mayor made it clear he wasn’t about to capitulate, and then left the council table.

Despite several councillors saying they would demand his resignation, the vote to remove Mr Clark was lost 6-4, with meeting chairman Deputy Mayor Tom Campbell voting for the mayor.

Invercargill Mayor Nobby Clark. PHOTO: COLE YEOMAN
Invercargill Mayor Nobby Clark. PHOTO: COLE YEOMAN
The meeting then voted in favour of the mayor delegating his appearances at all public events for the rest of the term, and for Mr Clark to make apologies to the MC of an event, and to councillors, council staff and city residents for unbecoming remarks and performance. The code of conduct complaint against him was upheld.

Somehow, Mr Clark has dodged yet another bullet.

Yet he has got form in egregiously offensive and disrespectful patter, whether it is using the ‘‘n’’ word in various contexts, or telling volunteer firefighters they are second-class citizens or making other unsavoury comments.

It is one thing to shoot from the hip and be straight-up with people in a way they can respect.

But it is not clever to make off-colour jokes and innuendo which reflect on the reputation of the organisation you are representing.

Mr Clark has apologised for his behaviour at the United Fire Brigades’ Association prizegiving, blaming ‘‘brain fade’’ from open-heart surgery for affecting his sense of perspective of what was and was not funny.

That suggestion of medical issues makes the situation more tricky and generates a real quandary for councillors about whether his condition is significant enough that he should be off the hook for such conduct.

It is possible that brain-fade really was a factor. But it could be just be a woeful excuse for appalling behaviour.

The upshot of yesterday’s meeting is that Invercargill now has a lame-duck mayor, shackled from performing one of the key functions of a mayor, getting out and about in their community and supporting and cajoling residents to continue in their endeavours.

This latest controversy which Mr Clark has embroiled himself in should give him cause for serious thought about the way he sometimes conducts himself as mayor.

It should also make him stop and consider whether he really is fit for the position at all.