Councillor’s profanity-laced tirade leads to calls for rule changes

Councillor’s profanity-laced tirade leads to calls for rule changes

Two Waikato mayors have asked the local government minister to appoint an independent adjudicator to hear complaints about the council’s code of conduct.

It follows a complaint from one of them, Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate, about Hamilton City Councillor Andrew Bydder’s tirade against Waipā District Council over the construction of a third bridge in Cambridge.

In the submission, which asked: “What the f**k are you f******ds*****cc**ts doing?”, Waipā Nayor also insulted Susan O’Regan, telling her: “Get off your ass and do your job.”

O’Regan has now joined Southgate in writing to Local Government Minister Simeon Brown asking for a better and more consistent way of holding elected representatives to account for misconduct.

The move follows years of bad behaviour by councillors and mayors, the most recent example being Invercargill Mayor Nobby Clark. Last month he was asked to resign by his councillors over comments he made to the United Fire Brigades Association and his previous use of the N-word.

Clark said he would instead take a month off because he had not fully recovered from open-heart surgery earlier this year.

In Hamilton, there has been a saga of notable code of conduct complaints against elected members, including a complaint against former West Ward councillor Siggi Henry for parking her campaign car with signs in a disabled space when she was late for a council meeting in 2019.

In 2017, then Hamilton City Councillor Mark Bunting apologised and stepped down as vice-chair of a council committee that carried a higher pay scale after he sent an inappropriately explicit image to a journalist.

Bydder offered no apologies for his submission, which he said he made a few months ago when he was still a Cambridge taxpayer, because there had been poor consultation about the placement of a third bridge in the city.

He claimed the message only gained attention because he was also a Hamilton councillor and questioned where the line was between his private identity and his public persona.

“Other anonymous individuals used foul language and some went further with threats of violence, but remained hidden from the public.

“My role was not in the message I sent from my home address via my PC directly to a Waipā website outside of work hours. It was about an issue that concerned my private property.

“The simple fact is that I was acting in a private capacity, protected by Article 14 of the Bill of Rights concerning freedom of expression.”

However, Southgate said Bydder’s comments had nothing to do with freedom of speech, which she supported.

“It’s about professional standards and conduct and execution. The representation of local government has to be of the highest and most respectful nature. And we need a process to enable that.”

The letter to Brown raised concerns that councils lack the tools to deal effectively with misconduct and called for a consistent national approach to complaints.

“It is a fact that some elected members can behave in such a way with little consequence because they enjoy a level of protection denied to most New Zealanders,” the letter said.

“Elected officials have no terms of employment, no employment contract, and no legally enforceable obligations other than the obligation to attend a small number of meetings.”

While councillors and mayors took an oath publicly agreeing to their council’s code of conduct regarding obscene language, written aggression and abusive and bullying behaviour, councillors and taxpayers had little choice when there was a clear breach.

“Complaints about codes of conduct are costly and time-consuming and offer few opportunities for redress.”

The mayors said the behavior of Bydder and others across the country brought discredit to the entire local government and would not be tolerated in any other workplace.

“We have already raised our concerns with Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) given the harm such behaviour causes to our sector and to the wellbeing of elected members who are the targets of such abuse.

“To be clear, we are not suggesting that individuals should not have the right to hold and express strong views. This is about the rights of others in the workplace and increasingly about the safety and wellbeing of those who work in our sector.”

They called for an independent body to deal with disciplinary matters and said that expanding the powers of the Local Government Commission could be an option to achieve this.

Brown said in a statement that he expects all elected members to fulfil their obligations under the Local Government Act.

“Councils are responsible for resolving conflicts around the board table. I have no intention of intervening in matters relating to Hamilton City Council.”

Bydder said he would welcome a similar tool being made available to taxpayers free of charge, allowing councils to be held to account for poor decisions they make about public services.

LGNZ chairman Sam Broughton said work was underway to establish a Conflict Resolution Service and acknowledged the code of conduct processes were a “blunt instrument”.

The service would be aimed at preventing difficult relationships or administrative problems from escalating at the council table.