Cold reality of serving on council

This is an election year for local bodies, and those in the game know personal abuse is commonplace and even expected — particularly for women or people from minority communities. Daisy Hudson takes a look a behaviour that is increasingly becoming a very real threat to democracy.

Having abuse shouted at you in the street.

Strangers posting directions to your house online. Emails with thinly veiled threats of public hangings.

These are experiences nobody should have to suffer, let alone have to consider a normal part of their job.

And yet, it has become an accepted workplace hazard for elected councillors and mayors in the South.

Issues such as Covid-19 and vaccinations, as well as contentious reforms such as Three Waters, have created an increasingly toxic atmosphere for some councillors.

You only have to look at social media to see the darker side of putting your hand up to serve your community.

Many councillors tell the Otago Daily Times that abuse is, unfortunately, a widespread, and growing, issue.

Even those who smile and say they have a thick skin, or who avoid Facebook’s comment section, have concerns about how the current climate could impact this year’s local government elections.

And, in turn, how that could discourage more diversity among candidates who may not want to throw themselves into the firing line.

Abuse has had a very tangible impact on Clutha District Mayor Bryan Cadogan’s personal life.

Working roughly 80 hours a week, he and his wife had a standing Saturday lunchtime coffee catch-up.

That was until his wife decided to scrap it after getting sick of the constant harassment Mr Cadogan received when members of the community would approach him in public.

Dunedin City councillor Marie Laufiso protected herself from abuse by deleting her social media....
Dunedin City councillor Marie Laufiso protected herself from abuse by deleting her social media. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
"She didn’t feel safe and she was sick of the abuse."

Mr Cadogan acknowledged he would be one of the least targeted mayors, but said he still cops his fair share.

He’s also seen the racism that colours many arguments.

For example, he’s been called a "n..... lover" due to his position on Three Waters.

"It goes from nought to 100miles an hour so quickly. Anything with Three Waters tends to have a racial slant around it, when the abuse gets going," Mr Cadogan said.

A local government veteran of 24 years, he believes the political environment has completely changed in the past two years, becoming more divisive and heated.

"Democracy should represent the entire cross section of society and I fear that if only the abrasive and the confrontational can handle politics, that’s not a good outcome," he said.

"Try as we have to put that support around it, you would only have to see it once to think ‘Ooh, that might not be for me’."

Those spoken to are quick to point out they aren’t concerned about genuine criticism about issues or council decisions. They are, after all, accountable to the communities they are elected torepresent.

The issue is with behaviour that goes beyond that.

One of the struggles for Invercargill city councillor Rebecca Amundsen is getting people to fully understand how decisions are made.

"People only see part of the picture, and so what makes them angry or upset is only part of what’s gone on. Sometimes I wish there was a way that everybody could fully understand and appreciate all of the parts that have created a situation," she said.

Issues such as vaccine passport requirements and the Southland DisAbility Enterprises recycling contract had proven to be particularly contentious.

Invercargill City councillor Rebecca Amundsen wants more diversity on councils. PHOTO: LUISA GIRAO
Invercargill City councillor Rebecca Amundsen wants more diversity on councils. PHOTO: LUISA GIRAO
Most of the flack was on social media, but it does cross over into real life, she said.

"There were certainly times when I saw people who had made comments on social media and I sort of wondered to myself whether I should walk past them or whether I’d be better off just crossing the street, so I did a few things like that because I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be."

And while she tries not to dwell on the negative, there were some things you just can’t help absorbing.

Ms Amundsen said she was told she was not "lady-like" enough to be mayor, because she had been seen drinking alcohol from a bottle, rather than a glass.

"Three years later, [it’s] still with me."

The demographics of councils nationally and locally skew towards older Pakeha men.

Not a single district or regional council in the South has more women than men, and many are overwhelmingly male.

Nationally, just 13.5% of councillors elected at the 2019 election were Maori.

For women, non-Pakeha, and those with young families, the level of public harassment can take on additional challenges.

One way Dunedin councillor Marie Laufiso protects herself is by avoiding social media.

She says Facebook’s algorithms escalate "anxiety and fear and hatred", so she deleted her account a while ago.

Part of the issue is a lack of New Zealand history and civics education, she said. This means "there’s a whole lot of ignorance that can be exploited by charlatans really, who are just in it for their own interests or that of their mates".

She offers a hat tip to council staff who are trying new ways to communicate with the public about council work.

Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult admits it’s not rare to receive abusive messages.PHOTO: CRAIG...
Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult admits it’s not rare to receive abusive messages.PHOTO: CRAIG BAXTER
"People slag off the council, but they don’t actually know about some of the good work the council’s doing as a matter of ordinary business."

Despite ongoing efforts, she worries about the level of debate and potential for racism this year as fractious issues such as Three Waters are contested.

"It’s going to be awful.

"I say to my mate, a history buff, good debater, ‘Why aren’t you doing this politician thing?’. She said ‘I’m not thick skinned enough’."

While Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins acknowledges he has "a much easier ride as a white dude on the internet", he has still been on the receiving end of online and in-person abuse.

His young family has also been exposed to it.

"I remember being at an event when my son was maybe 2, and some random guy came over and laid into me while I was holding him in my arms.

"That was the first time I realised that people were comfortable behaving like that. That kinda thing still happens from time to time."

He’s had people post directions to his house online and encourage others to give "direct feedback".

"Others have told me that my house should be graffiti’d, I think that was for supporting the vaccine programme.

"We’ve had our car vandalised.

"A lot of it you can write off ... but not all of it. You would have to be a cold-blooded human for it not to have some impact on you, and for it to make you question whether it’s worth it."

Most people are pretty good about giving him space when he’s with his family, he said.

He’s also wary of the fine line between encouraging good people to stand for council, and being honest about how some criticism can play out.

Bryan Cadogan’s weekly coffee out with his wife in Balcutha had to stop because people came up...
Bryan Cadogan’s weekly coffee out with his wife in Balcutha had to stop because people came up and abused them in public. PHOTO: NICK BROOK
"This isn’t the world’s most whanau friendly line of work, which is why there aren’t huge numbers of people my age, with young families, lining up to do it. That’s a shame though, because their perspectives are essential in informing the decisions that we make."

He sees investing in social cohesion as a way to counter the increasing divisiveness at play.

"We need strong and resilient communities, not fractured and isolated ones, if we’re to navigate the years ahead."

During a conversation about what kind of feedback local politicians get, Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult pulled out his phone to show a message he received out of the blue at 3.15am one day. It’s extremely abusive.

It’s not a rare occurrence, he said. "I know a couple of my own councillors who have had enough and just don’t need it anymore, and who are probably going to not run again."

"I get very disappointed in the keyboard warriors who are quick to criticise, but would never think of standing for local government politics themselves."

The issue of online abuse and social media trolling is a complicated one.

Much of it comes down to something called de-individuation — the idea that you lose identity online and have anonymity.

According to University of Otago psychology senior lecturer Damian Scarf, people find it hard to think of online comments as real life comments.

They don’t think of the people they’re criticising as real people, but rather as entities or an organisation.

"When people meet in person, conversations generally take on a different tone for most people," he said.

There are a small number of people who are more deliberate in their approach, and who see trolling as part of their identity.

Those individuals are of more concern, he said.

The challenge is how to balance filtering harmful content, and not further isolating that person.

Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins has been abused while holding his young son. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins has been abused while holding his young son. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
The apparent rise in abuse and harassment isn’t something all local politicians are concerned about.

In fact, Otago Regional councillor Michael Laws said he’s surprised there isn’t more vitriol directed towards elected officials "given the often poorly-explained policies and change that has been imposed upon constituents and communities".

"There are some very precious folk who think that getting the upraised finger is tantamount to physical assault. They should enter an encounter group not politics.

"There are always the fringe nutters and nutter groups, but they’re no more dangerous than in any other decade of my public life."

He believes the real problem afflicting politics is a lack of engagement from people.

But many elected officials are increasingly reporting abuse as an issue, Local Government New Zealand chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene said.

"Mayors tell me they are careful where they go and how and when they are in public."

She said councillors are suffering from broader environmental factors such as the pandemic, and "some pretty messy reforms".

That’s all creating a climate where temperatures are running high.

"To put yourself up for election, to stand, to be successful, you have to have quite a high threshold for public scrutiny and exposure, and you would expect that, and to hear views that are entirely against what you think.

"But this is another level, that ability to play the player instead of the ball is extreme, it’s at a different level, and it is impacting. I’m hearing mayors and elected officials saying ‘I’m trying to do the right thing here, this is a really tough job, I don’t know if it’s worth it’."

Even worse, she said, is the fact that some councillors are telling her they would be hard-pressed to recommend the job to someone else.

"I had a mayor tell me not so long ago that she was asked by a young woman whether or not a young woman should stand for office, and she said ‘I had to think twice about that’.

"If we’re dissuading people from standing, we’re in a deeply difficult place."

Waitaki Deputy Mayor Mel Tavendale is stepping down at this year’s elections to get out of the...
Waitaki Deputy Mayor Mel Tavendale is stepping down at this year’s elections to get out of the public eye. PHOTO: REBECCA RYAN

Mel Tavendale

Keen for a break from the public eye in the midst of an increasingly divided social environment, Waitaki District deputy mayor Mel Tavendale has decided to call time on her council tenure after three terms.

"It’s quite draining," she says.

"I do worry that we’re going to have a lot of good people who say it’s just too much right now, I don’t want to take that on."

If she was considering standing for the first time in 2022, she doesn’t think she would do it.

"If you’re looking at vaccination rates, if you’re looking at Omicron, if you’re looking at Three Waters, no matter what side you stand on in an argument there is so much anger and people feel passionate and I understand that, but it’s really hard right now to lift your head up and make your voice be heard."

Initially active on social media as a councillor, she has taken a step back due to the negativity and lack of boundaries.

"That’s where the negativity comes from. Things that people would never say to you in person they’ll say quite happily to you online.

"I think a lot of the time you’ve got to really word any response really, really well, because quite often the people you’re dealing with aren’t looking for an answer, they’re wanting to find a gap in your knowledge or a mistake."

Boundaries are important to Ms Tavendale and she points out that council candidates are still required to have their home address publicly available when seeking election.

"For me personally I find that unnecessary these days, because I can be at home with my two kids by myself and it’s not something that feels safe.

"There are so many ways to get hold of a councillor that I think we need to realise there needs to be something in their life that’s theirs.

"I’ve only had a couple of instances of people turning up to your house, but having your address everywhere on everything because it’s needed by the law when you’re running for council is probably unnecessary these days and leaves people feeling a little bit unsafe."

Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan was targeted by a poster campaign over his position on...
Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan was targeted by a poster campaign over his position on vaccinations. PHOTO: ODT FILES

Tim Cadogan

"Like probably every other mayor I’ve had emails that have talked about Nuremburg trials and public hangings and so forth, which is a little bit off-putting."

It’s a bit of an understatement from Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan. But as he points out, personal attacks have become increasingly common.

As well as receiving emails and online heckling, Mr Cadogan was the victim of a poster campaign around Roxburgh and Alexandra featuring his personal details and targeting his position on child vaccinations.

"I’d happily sit down and have a cup of coffee or a beer with anybody and talk through things and why we may disagree or look at things in a different way, and that’s the guts of doing the whole job.

"But when you’re just getting shouted at and people aren’t listening, it does make it hard."

He’s recently talked to two councillors from other councils who say they’re struggling to recommit to standing. They’re tired, he says, and the public pressure is part of it.

"I remember my first day as mayor, walking down the street and somebody yelled abuse at me and I thought ‘Well, here we go’.

"It is part of it, but it doesn’t help to get good people to think that they’ll serve their community when a very small part of their community is acting like this."

He worries about the climate this year’s local government elections will be held in, recalling a meeting in Central Otago during the last general election.

A significant number of people in the crowd started making a lot of noise about conspiracy theories such as "Agenda 21", he says.

"It just staggered me that so many people there were making a noise about things like that in a small town, town hall in New Zealand."

People need to reflect on the old golden rule of ‘Do unto others’, he says.

"That would be a very good place to start, because nobody likes to be attacked, and you’re not going to catch a lot of flies with vinegar.

"We’re all human beings, elected members. We don’t suddenly become less human because we’ve put on mayoral chains."

Local Government Staff

Sarah Gardner
Sarah Gardner
Abuse is not just limited to elected officials.

Council staff across the South have been grappling with increasingly vitriolic harassment and, in some cases, physical threats and intimidation.

The issue is a personal one for Otago Regional Council chief executive Sarah Gardner.

"I worked in New South Wales and just prior to me arriving in New South Wales, one of our colleagues was actually murdered in an aggression situation, so it’s something that sticks with me and is really top of mind when I’m thinking about how to protect our staff," she says.

There have already been three incidents of aggression against regional council staff this year, and she says the number of incidents nearly doubled between 2020 and 2021.

They tended to be verbal aggression, but on occasion they have escalated beyond that.

A staff member has been threatened over the phone, one was physically assaulted, and someone even impersonated Ms Gardner in communication with other council staff around the country.

Staff have been given de-escalation training, and Ms Gardner says she has a zero tolerance policy towards staff abuse.

"It’s about seeing each other as human beings rather than seeing us as the organisation that we work for or the job that we do."

Sandy Graham
Sandy Graham
The Dunedin City Council has also noticed more abuse of staff.

In December there were 22 instances of abusive behaviour towards staff, with 12 incidents of verbal abuse, seven incidents of threatening behaviour, and three incidents of harassment.

Over the past five years there were 168 occurrences of abusive behaviour, comprising 59 instances of verbal abuse, 18 instances of threatening behaviour, 74 instances of harassment and 17 assaults.

Chief executive Sandy Graham says people’s resilience is low, and because of that people are more fractious in their interactions.

"What I would say is my staff are your sons or your daughters, your granny or your granddad, and they’re doing their best, but they also at the same time appreciate that people have stuff going on for them.

"Very few people genuinely intend to be abusive, but people are stretched."

And in Queenstown, the district council had to release a strongly worded call for better behaviour after an increase in incidents involving staff.

- This article was written by our Southern Issues reporter, an investigative role funded by the Public Interest Journalism Fund. As part of the role, journalist Daisy Hudson will take an in depth look at issues affecting Otago and Southland communities. She will examine topics and trends in all areas of Southern life, from local government to the economy, education to housing, health to infrastructure and everything in between. This work will expand on the Otago Daily Times' commitment to bringing you the stories of our people and the matters that affect them.


“Nationally, just 13.5% of councillors elected at the 2019 election were Maori.“

I get the point you’re driving towards, but it gets a little deflated when you compare that to proportion of NZers who are Maori - which is around the 16% mark (depending on what bank of data you look at).

Given the relatively small sample size you’d get when you add all the councillors into the one bucket, I’d say the proportion of Maori representation across the country looks to be almost exactly what you’d expect to see, given those comparative percentages.

So, perhaps.... “Nationally, 13.5% of councillors elected at the 2019 election were Maori.”

Report threatening behaviour to police.