Intervention in Gore only if ‘significant problem’

The Minister of Local Government will have to be convinced a "significant problem exists" before there is any formal intervention at the Gore District Council.

Even if the council requested ministerial intervention, this probably would not be enough to trigger it.

It would need to be fairly clear the district was being harmed by council dysfunction, advice issued to the minister indicates.

The minister, Kieran McAnulty, asked officials for advice about Crown intervention powers in local authorities, and on May 16 — the day the council had been poised to decide to write to him on the subject — he received it.

The advice, from the Department of Internal Affairs, has been released under the Official Information Act.

It appears the minister anticipated he might receive a letter requesting he remove Gore Mayor Ben Bell from office.

"Note that you are not able to remove an individual elected member from office," Mr McAnulty was told.

"The only way the mayor or any councillor can be removed is via resignation or ministerial intervention" and, concerning the latter, the whole council would be replaced by a commission — "it is all or none".

Mr McAnulty also asked about potential ramifications of a no-confidence vote in the mayor and was told it would be highly symbolic, but would carry no legal weight.

"Depending on the context of the outcome, you may wish to commission advice on whether the threshold for intervention has been met."

In the end, after a public backlash and external advice to the council encouraging caution, a vote of no confidence did not proceed.

A proposed motion — that the council write to the Minister of Local Government requesting a meeting with council representatives to discuss intervention measures available to assist the council to effectively govern and conduct its business as usual — was never put.

The working relationship between Mr Bell, elected at age 23, and council chief executive Stephen Parry broke down last year.

Both have faced calls to resign.

Stuart Crosby. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Stuart Crosby. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Local Government New Zealand president Stuart Crosby said on May 16 the situation at the council reflected poorly on everyone involved.

"Although it’s primarily felt by the Gore community, it also does a disservice to local democracy and local government generally," Mr Crosby said.

On May 12, Internal Affairs staff met Mr Parry and nine of 10 councillors and then "had a phone meeting" with the other councillor, Robert McKenzie, Mr Bell and "legal representation of the mayor".

The department explained in its advice to the minister it could get involved in a limited way to help councils that were having problems.

"Taking a proactive approach to identifying and addressing issues provides a mechanism to formally record council issues that are of a substantial nature, but which do not necessarily require intervention.

"By understanding the challenges faced by local government at both an individual and sector level, the department has influence to lessen the extent of, and in some cases avoid, triggering the intervention provisions altogether."

Levels of intervention ranged from a Crown review team to a commission.

To intervene, the minister would have to be convinced both that there was a problem affecting the council’s ability to give effect to the purpose of local government and that this was significant.

The minister would have to consider what the council was doing about the problem and bear in mind councils were accountable to ratepayers and residents, and elections were the primary way for communities to express satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

Matters to consider might include "failure or breakdown of key relationships" and "serious capability deficiencies of elected members or the chief executive".

However, any decision regarding Crown intervention should be based on legal advice and relevant facts, the department said.

Triggers that might lead to ministerial intervention included a council writing to the minister requesting it, a council rejecting independent advice, a "material number" of councillors resigning and significant failure in service delivery.

"It is unlikely that any one of these scenarios would satisfy the ‘significant problem’ test on its own."