Gore’s new deputy mayor is worried the council is projecting an image of dysfunction just weeks after the district’s tight mayoral race was settled.
At 23-years-old, Ben Bell became the country’s youngest-ever mayor after beating six-term incumbent Tracy Hicks by just eight votes.
Hicks sought a recount, but a judge dismissed his bid earlier this month.
The new mayor’s term had already been tumultuous, with controversy over expenses and his desire for an executive assistant to be appointed to him.
This week, a majority of councilors called for his chosen deputy, Stewart MacDonell, to be ousted almost as soon as the appointment was made.
And while the latest fracas swirled around the council table, Bell was taking a break.
At 3.01pm on Wednesday, he sent an email to senior staff and councillors, titled “Mayoral Absence”.
“As you can all imagine the past few days has been pretty rough for me. I have been on the go constantly since being sworn in. So … I have decided to take some time for the rest of the week,” the email said.
“I will still be answering emails and doing some work so please don’t hesitate to call me if you need. As Stewart was confirmed as deputy yesterday he will be my man on the ground so please don’t hesitate to get in touch with him also if there are any issues.
“I hope you can all understand this decision and I look forward to catching up with each of you next week.”
Bell’s phone went straight to voicemail and he was yet to respond to emailed questions from RNZ.
Seven of the Gore District Council’s ten other councilors signed a requisition letter calling for a vote on MacDonell remaining as deputy mayor.
It was delivered to chief executive Stephen Parry almost as soon as MacDonell’s appointment was confirmed.
“There’s a breakdown in communication between the councilors is what the problem is and that’s what we need to fix as simply as that. End of story,” MacDonell told RNZ, when asked about what was going on at the council.
“There’s just a – how can I word it nicely,” he responded, when asked what caused the breakdown.
“There was always going to be a faction in council, who because they were very deeply connected with the previous mayor, were going to find it very difficult to adjust to a new mayor.”
He was always going to be seen as a controversial choice for deputy mayor to some because of his outspoken opposition to the previous mayor during the past triennium, MacDonell said.
“I was seen as, perhaps, radical in voting against the previous mayor on a number of issues on principle.
“Like, I voted five times against all the resolutions that were passed at the last council meeting that took place two days before the election results were declared,” he said.
“I believe that meeting shouldn’t have taken place and we should have waited for the new mayor and council to ratify those decisions.”
Councilors Richard McPhail, Bronwyn Reid, Paul McPhail, Bret Highsted, Neville Phillips, Glenys Dickson and Joe Stringer signed the letter calling for a vote on MacDonell’s future as deputy mayor.
“The decision to file the requisition against fellow councilor and deputy mayor Stewart MacDonell came after much deliberation and attempts to work collaboratively to provide the best governance structure for our community,” they told the media.
“We believe our new mayor deserves strong support and guidance. Unfortunately, we have had to take this course of action to achieve that.”
Stringer was part of the Team Hokonui ticket, alongside Bell, during the election campaign.
When asked why one of Bell’s running mates would be against MacDonell as deputy, if the letter was about support for Hicks, MacDonell said: “A good question there. Joe believed at the time that I wasn’t giving Ben enough support and that’s why he signed it. That’s the answer you want.”
He had since spoken to Stringer and discussed the issue.
“He has spoken to me and I accept his reasons as to why he signed that document,” MacDonell said.
When contacted by RNZ, Stringer said he would like to comment but it would be inappropriate.
Several of the other signatories also declined to comment, while some did not pick up their phones.
McPhail said he did not believe Bell was getting the support he deserved.
Meanwhile, Phillips said he wanted to wait until there was a full meeting of the council to explain his reasons for signing the letter.
He denied loyalty to Hicks was part of the reasoning behind the move to oust MacDonell.
“Absolutely not. My reasoning for signing this piece of paper is I want stability for the next three years,” Phillips said.
“I want the mayor to understand it’s not a personal thing, it’s just about making sure we’re doing the best thing for the district and in my thinking it’s nothing to do with past history.”
Both Phillips and MacDonell had concerns about the dysfunctional light this week had cast on the council.
“I’m very concerned about that issue and we will attempt to resolve that issue in the next few days. When the mayor and I have had a chance to talk through the issues and we have a path forward for both him and I, we will announce what is going to happen,” MacDonell said.
“Of course I’m concerned and that’s what we’re trying to rectify,” Phillips said.
The council would vote on whether MacDonell remained as deputy mayor at an extraordinary council meeting on December 15.