Gore councillors were warned plan to oust Bell may backfire

Gore councillors were warned the day before they backed out of a showdown with the district’s mayor their plans could backfire on them and their community.

The possibility commissioners might need to be brought in if the council proceeded down a path of seeking ministerial intervention was signalled to councillors on May 15 - although not quite stated explicitly.

The council was cautioned by Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene and the national membership organisation for local government professionals Taituara vice-president Jo Miller to be wary of unintended consequences that could arise from ceding influence.

Gore Mayor Ben Bell
Gore Mayor Ben Bell
In a letter released under the Official Information Act, they reminded the council there was no way for Minister of Local Government Kieran McAnulty to remove Gore Mayor Ben Bell while allowing councillors to remain.

"Once a council seeks ministerial intervention, it’s up to the minister to decide on the next steps," they said.

"There would be no way, as a council, for you to influence his decision.

"The loss of democratic voice is a very real possible end outcome for your community if you take that path."

On May 16, after a strong public backlash and intense media scrutiny, the council decided not to proceed with a symbolic vote of no confidence in the mayor.

There was also no resolution to write to the minister, nor to remove the mayor from committees, subcommittees and joint committees.

Instead, the council decided to work with LGNZ and Taituara to develop amended terms of reference for an independent review to renew confidence in the council.

The Otago Daily Times asked Gore deputy mayor Keith Hovell to what extent the possibility of "loss of democratic voice" influenced the council's backdown.

Mr Hovell said the comments in the May 15 letter informed informal discussions between councillors before they adjusted their course.

Councillors had been aware options available to the minister did not include removal from office of any one elected official, he said.

The assessment from LGNZ and Taituara on May 15 was frank.

"The current situation at Gore District Council reflects poorly on everyone involved," Ms Freeman-Greene and Ms Miller wrote.

This was felt keenly by the Gore community and "does a disservice to local democracy and local government generally".

Intense community politics were in play at Gore and the council should recognise ongoing regular, external support was needed, they said.

"We would like to work with you to make sure that the course of actions you take next don't have unintended consequences - we don’t think all the options council has at its disposal have been exhausted yet."

The draft terms of reference for the review needed more work if they were to command confidence, they said.

More than a month later, the terms of reference have yet to be confirmed.

Just after the meeting, LGNZ and Taituarā commended the council.

Councillors had chosen not to push through with the vote of no confidence "and two other unproductive recommendations", and instead to work with the two organisations on producing appropriate terms of reference.

On May 23, Department of Internal Affairs operational policy manager Anthea Oliver said she was pleased with progress.

"It is clear to me that the council has taken on board the feedback provided by Local Government New Zealand, Taituarā, and the department during recent discussions."