Bell under fire at first Gore council meeting, council votes not to employ a personal assistant

Gore District mayor Ben Bell came under fire from councilors at his first council meeting on Tuesday, when he asked councilors to consider employing his personal assistant.

Kavinda Kerath/Stuff

Gore District mayor Ben Bell came under fire from councilors at his first council meeting on Tuesday, when he asked councilors to consider employing his personal assistant.

A Gore district councilor has described new mayor Ben Bell’s request for the council to employ a personal executive assistant for him as a ”vanity project”.

Those comments came as New Zealand’s youngest-ever mayor chaired his first council meeting on Tuesday.

Bell agreed to pay all of his personal executive assistant Shanna Crosbie’s costs associated with a trip to Wellington, after discussions with councilors and council staff, but the council has also put a hold on appointing councilors to committees until its meeting in December.

The packed public gallery waited for more than two hours for the subject of the employment of a personal assistant for Bell to be raised.

In a report to council, it was proposed that person work 27.5 hours a week, at a cost of $70,000 – $85,000 annually.

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After a long pause when the agenda item was raised, Bell told councilors he employed his own assistant because he was ”heavily affected by the media” when he was first elected. He thought that would take resources away from council chief executive Stephen Parry, who shares an executive assistant with the mayor’s office.

But Bell came under fire from councilors over the employment request.

Cr Bret Highsted said no other mayor in Southland had a personal assistant, Bell had campaigned on getting “back to basics” and he was ”deeply concerned” about employment ramifications.

The position was Bell’s ”own vanity project,” he said.

Cr Bronwyn Reid said she was concerned teh position was ”a flight risk” if her job was not being taken seriously, and she said ”in no way” could she support the motion.

Gore district councilor Bret Highsted said no other mayor in Southland had a personal assistant.

Kavinda Kerath/Stuff

Gore district councilor Bret Highsted said no other mayor in Southland had a personal assistant.

Cr Richard McPhail said the council had media and communications specialists Bell could have used and the position would be a ”luxury item”.

Cr Neville Phillips was concerned that the agenda said the person who held the position would not work for chief executive Stephen Parry, and he questioned the transparency of that.

Earlier at the meeting, Bell told Highsted he would not be removing himself from the discussion around the employment decision, because the chief executive employed council staff, not him.

Councilor Joe Stringer, who is Crosbie’s partner, only declared a conflict of interest around the discussion about Bell’s expense claim.

Bell and Crosbie traveled to Wellington when Bell attended a two-day training session for new mayors hosted by Local Government New Zealand.

Bell has furnished an expense claim of $4,584 for the trip, which included flights, costs for a flight change, accommodation at the James Cook Hotel Grand Chancellor, and hotel parking.

Gore District Mayor Ben Bell and chief executive Stephen Parry.

Kavinda Kerath/Stuff

Gore District Mayor Ben Bell and chief executive Stephen Parry.

Council chief executive Stephen Parry decided not to reimburse Crosbie’s costs incurred for the trip, after receiving advice from the council’s general manager corporate support Lornae Straith, because the council’s Sensitive Expenditure Policy only allows for the mayor, elected members, and council staff to incur expenditure if there is a justified business purpose.

Bell’s first report to the council’s inaugural meeting was tabled but councilors voted not to establish committees until the next council meeting in December.

However, Bell confirmed he had appointed councilor Stewart MacDonnell as deputy mayor.

Last week Stuff reported that experienced councilor Bret Highsted had not been appointed to a committee.

*This story originally referred to the appointment of Shanna Crosbie as a council employee, however the council discussed employing an assistant for Bell, and not Crosbie specifically. The story was amended at 9:20am on November 23.

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