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Duncan McDonald (left) and Marcus Amosa
Duncan McDonald (left) and Marcus Amosa

BusinessFebruary 19, 2019

The bitter fight tearing Avondale apart

Duncan McDonald (left) and Marcus Amosa
Duncan McDonald (left) and Marcus Amosa

For 18 years a small group of local business owners ran the Avondale Business Association as they pleased. It took 18 months for two brothers to spark a revolution.

Marcus Amosa loves Avondale. And not in the reluctant way that most people love a place they’ve been forced to spend years of their lives in. He genuinely loves Avondale, even if it sometimes seems no one else does. When the Western Leader published an article last year labelling Avondale “Auckland’s third world suburb”, residents were upset and angry while the rest of Auckland shook its head, pitying them.

Because while neighbouring western suburbs New Lynn and Mt Albert have been stumbling into their newfound status as burgeoning areas with thriving business centres, the Avondale business district has stubbornly refused to adapt. Storefronts on the main street advertise peeling paint, loose wires, and uniformly ugly green signage.

Amosa knows all of this. His family have been part of the Avondale community for years. His father served as a minister at Avondale PIC Church for 10 years and his mother established – and still runs – the preschool next door. His brother Chris, a tattoo artist, has lived in Avondale since 2002. As their cousin, I spent a lot of time visiting various relatives in and around the West Auckland suburb, and was subject to the latest gossip from within the community. When Amosa moved back to Auckland in 2015 to set up a tattoo studio with Chris (they already had a music production company, Copra Audio, there), they both had Avondale as their first and only location choice.

A Google view of Avondale

The brothers got to know their business neighbours and were soon hearing complaints about the Avondale Business Association, an incorporated society set up to represent and assist business owners in Avondale. Most of the complaints centred around the chairman, local appliance store owner Duncan Macdonald. Macdonald had first been elected chairman of the ABA in 1999 and had run virtually unopposed since. The business owners he represented, and the residents who were affected by proxy, were rarely flattering in their opinions of Macdonald. Community developer Dayne Smith, who runs the popular I Love Avondale Facebook page, had heard them all.

“Whether [I talked to] businesses, schools, council, community groups or ordinary residents the themes are the same: that he’s a bully and unapproachable, reactive not proactive, exclusive rather than collaborative.”

There were constant questions around what exactly the ABA was spending $130,000 a year on. The ABA executive committee is tasked with distributing funds (sourced from rates paid by landlords and business owners) to benefit those same businesses. Many owners claimed they had yet to see any benefits.

Pretty soon, Amosa had heard enough. He wanted Avondale businesses to be celebrated and promoted, and didn’t think the ABA was doing a very good job of it. So he decided to try to join the executive committee. He figured he could kickstart some new initiatives and bring fresh ideas to what he regarded as a stale operation.

Instead he kickstarted an 18-month fight with the ABA, a byzantine battle that has divided the local business community, prompting angry claims and counter-claims and allegations of shady behaviour, dodgy financial dealings, trespass notices, unconstitutional operations, and cat thievery.

The very gradual and then very sudden collapse of the ABA began just over two years ago. In truth it began earlier than that, in 1999, when Macdonald was first appointed chairman, but the latest and most dramatic chapter began with an email on January 20, 2017. Amosa, an ex-NZ Army serviceman and new Avondale business owner, wanted to get involved in the community.

“I was wondering if you could send me more information about upcoming meetings. I’m looking to get more involved with local business matters,” he wrote.

Chris (left) and Marcus Amosa at their tattoo studio (Photo: Cain Tattoo facebook)

Not much information was supplied, so Amosa read up on the ABA constitution and set out, along with a reluctant Chris, to join the executive committee.

When they showed up at the AGM, it was nearly empty. “The only reason we got on the board was because we went and there was no one else there so we just automatically got on,” Amosa said this week. An email from chairman Macdonald was sent to the executive committee the next day, offering “a special welcome to our new committee members … Chris Amosa & Marcus Amosa”.

Amosa was, to put it lightly, an enthusiastic member of the ABA committee. Email threads from early 2018 reveal a lot of questions and suggestions from him to the committee. The mostly minor suggestions – for example, that the committee should have business cards to distribute to locals – were met with hesitation and pushback, and Amosa adjusted his suggestions accordingly. But while he was at pains to work with the old members and not ruffle feathers, his brother didn’t share his concern.

When an amateur business card design was presented by another member, Chris Amosa commented “this design is… terrible lol” before offering to work on an alternative.

Chris Amosa never wanted to join the committee but was persuaded by his brother and the other members. “Why would I want to be on the committee? I’m not a politician,” he said later. But once he was involved, he went all in. “I wasn’t about to bite my tongue if I disagreed.”

Chris Amosa’s bluntness stood out within the email threads of passive aggression – hardly uncommon among committees and boards – and it wasn’t long before tensions rose between him and Macdonald.

The divide between the Amosa brothers and the rest of the committee grew when, in July, Marcus Amosa expressed concern about the Western Leader article on Avondale headlined “The struggle to improve Auckland’s third world suburb”, in particular, what he saw as Macdonald’s dismissive response to the reporter’s questions.

“Can we table this at the next meeting, in particular can we discuss how we can maintain our brand integrity,” wrote Amosa. “Whilst accurate, I think the quoted line ‘It’s an incorporated society, love’ doesn’t accurately portray who we are as an association.”

His email signalled a turning point in the relationship between the committee of old and its two new members.

Every year, the ABA puts on a Christmas event in the town centre. It varies year to year but usually involves a competition or activity for the kids. Auckland council supplies funding for these events but in 2018 the ABA made the decision to refuse its funding after it had been approved. Marcus Amosa expressed, via email, his disappointment that he had not been consulted on the decision. The thread soon dissolved into a heated argument with the brothers on one side, and the rest of the committee on the other. The brothers were furious at what they saw as the committee’s unwillingness to accept the council’s funding and do something for the community. A week later, Chris Amosa asked to see the financial records of the ABA. According to his brother Marcus, that was the final straw.

“We started asking questions within the committee about funding and then all of a sudden they tried to kick us out.”

Worried that they would be caught out on a technicality at the AGM in October, Marcus Amosa contacted Auckland Council for clarification of the nomination process for members, executive members, and chair. After submitting two written nominations to the secretary, Amanda Phillips, he received an email from Phillips, saying that he was not a member of the ABA.

“At this point of time we do not recognise you as a member and until you supply me with sufficient evidence you will not be entitled to attend the AGM.”

When Amosa pointed out that he had been serving on the board as a committee member for a year, Phillips responded, that he was invited on the committee, “not elected”, and needed to prove his eligibility as a business owner. She then reminded him that “the AGM is for ABA Members only”.

It was the first time he had been asked to provide any information about his business since he and Chris joined the committee.

In an email detailing his circumstances to a council rep, Amosa referred to his situation as being “a little bit crazy”. The council rep replied, “If you think this is a little bit crazy I’d hate to see what you think is a lot crazy.”

The Amosas went to the AGM and were refused entry. They stood outside the meeting arguing with Macdonald and another committee member, Victor Martick. Another member, Julie Ramsay, who owns the trophy and engraving store Milestones with her husband, saw what was going on outside and took action. She approached Phillips and withdrew her nomination, meaning there was an open spot on the committee available to any member who stood on the night.

With a nomination spot open and proof of business ownership finally – though reluctantly – accepted, Marcus Amosa was let into the AGM half an hour after it was scheduled to begin.

He left the AGM as the newly elected chairman of the ABA after submitting his nomination from the floor. The votes were counted on the night and it was announced that Amosa had won by a landslide. It was the largest AGM turnout in years.

As everyone was leaving the AGM, Amosa said he offered his hand to Macdonald, who refused to shake it.

Amosa’s appointment was met with widespread enthusiasm from the community, business owners and residents alike. Smith, from I Love Avondale, remembers a sense of relief and excitement at the changing of the guard. “People were keen to see someone finally step up with some fresh ideas and energy,” he said. “It wasn’t just a case of ‘any change is good change’ either. The excitement was greater because Marcus and the Amosa family have a lot of mana in our area.”

Amosa was offered a $5000 honorarium, an annual payment to the chair which had been agreed on by the executive committee many years prior. Amosa declined the honorarium.

Duncan Macdonald (left) and Victor Martick (Photos: Mahvash Ali and RNZ)

On November 1, 2018, the ABA received a letter from one Duncan Macdonald, former chairman and owner of Avondale Appliance Centre. The premises of Avondale Appliances included the administration offices of the ABA. The ABA paid Avondale Appliance Centre to lease the office space for the admin and chair, who was now Amosa.

McDonald’s letter to the ABA began: “We regret to inform the ABA that we are not willing to have Marcus Amosa on our premises.”

There was no reason given. When pressed for an explanation at a committee meeting, Macdonald’s friend, Martick, explained that he had concerns around trust and his work as a justice of the peace.

In the same month that Amosa was elected as chairman of the ABA, the Auckland Council informed the committee that it would be conducting an audit.

Meanwhile, Martick and Macdonald had proposed a ‘validation’ process of all ABA members, particularly those who voted at the AGM. Amosa assisted in creating a form and distributed them to business owners, but raised concerns around a proposed ‘entry level’ rate contribution.

Put simply, Martick and Macdonald moved to implement a minimum rate contribution for potential ABA members. This meant that if your business operated out of the corner of an office space, and you only paid a fraction of the lease (and therefore rates), you might be declined membership, despite being a business owner in Avondale. The proposed entry level rates contribution happened to be a fraction higher than what Amosa paid as owner of Copra Audio.

When Amosa asked a council rep if entry levels could be implemented for ABA members, he was told that to do so would be unconstitutional.

Pretty soon there were suggestions of police checks for all members. Again, Amosa was willing to cooperate but questioned the motive, until Macdonald sent photos from Amosa’s instagram account to Auckland Council, suggesting that he was a cat thief.

“You may or may not know that he is circulating accusations about you and cats,” a council rep wrote.

Amosa at first assumed this revelation, mentioned in the middle of an email about the legality of Macdonald and the ABA’s actions, was a mispelling of ‘Cain’, his tattoo business. But no, he meant cats. Amosa was being accused of leading a gang of cat thieves.

In 2013, Amosa had posted two Instagram photos that were captured and sent to the council by Macdonald. The first was a picture of a newspaper with the headline “gang accused of stealing 4000 cats”. The second was a photo of a prosecution notice captioned “always up for a legal scrap”. The “scrap” was in regards to a ticket for running a red light that Amosa disputed in court, saying there were no road markings.

On both images a friend of Amosa’s had joked that Marcus should stop stealing so many cats. These were used by Macdonald, apparently to suggest a history of feline thievery. Meanwhile, says Amosa, Macdonald and Martick continued to suggest more stringent checks (including criminal) on potential ABA members.

All the while, Amosa had still not been granted access to the ABA office as he had not yet “validated” his membership.

On December 11, 2018, a letter from Auckland Council addressed to “Marcus Amosa, Chair, Avondale Business Association” carried the subject heading “Concerns regarding the Avondale Business Association”.

The letter was long, and detailed a number of pressing concerns that needed to be addressed before further BID (Business Improvement District) funding could be allocated. The first concern was that “the total member funds did not reflect the ABA’s total net assets”.

Amosa again requested financial statements from the ABA and when he visited Avondale Appliances in person and asked to see the records, he was served a trespass notice by Macdonald.

The letter and trespass notice from Duncan Macdonald (Photos: supplied)

Further down the list of the council’s concerns was a particularly timely one. “At the November 2018 ABA meeting, a proposal was tabled that the ABA formally adopts a policy that the committee elects the Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer, rather than the membership voting on these positions at an AGM.”

The letter quoted the ABA constitution that says only if a member is not voted into the chair position at the AGM can they be appointed by the committee. “The committee does not have the authority to set a policy to determine whether it is the AGM or the committee that fills these roles.”

The committee had attempted to give themselves the power to elect a chair without informing ABA members, was the council assessment, and such an action would be unconstitutional. Amosa passed this letter on to the committee, adding, “I am extremely concerned about the sustainability and also the of the integrity of our entire association and its members.”

Martick responded on behalf of the ABA to the council’s concerns, saying, “The amounts you refer to are not material enough to justify withholding BID funding.” And on the changes to the electoral process? “As you know this proposal was withdrawn for further discussion. This may be a proposed rule change in the future.”

He ended his email with “I think your letter to the ABA is heavy handed and unreasonable. I’m willing to work with whoever but only in a reasonable professional manner.”

Christmas came around and tensions were set aside, or perhaps simply ignored, over the holiday break. There was no Christmas community activity in Avondale.

Back at work on February 1, Marcus received an unsigned letter from Phillips, on behalf of the ABA.

“The ABA Executive Committee has unanimously voted to decline both your membership applications as you do not qualify to be a full member under the ABA Membership Standards policy and constitution.

“As such you are no longer recognised as the Chairman and you are to immediately cease and desist from claiming you hold the position as Chairman or as a member of the ABA.”

A second letter was received days later.

“Please cease and desist acting as a member of the ABA or the Chairman of the ABA, do not correspond with ABA Members nor the Executive Committee or we will be forced to obtain an injunction.”

Chris Amosa, operating under the assumption that he was still a member of the ABA, emailed Phillips with the subject heading “serious concerns”, requesting minutes of committee meetings and financial statements. The next day he also received a letter.

“Cain Tattoo’s application to become a member was unanimously declined…”

With both brothers now apparently out of not only the executive committee but the association itself, they shared their grievances on their private social media accounts. The Cain Tattoo page promised that the brothers would be “posting up exactly what we’ve experienced and witnessed since we joined the ABA…” Smith posted a summary of events on the I Love Avondale page, encouraging the community to get in touch with the council and local MP Deborah Russell. Word spread quickly and pressure was put on the remaining committee members to address the situation.

Instead, the official Facebook page for the Avondale spider statue, Dale’s Avondale Update, posted an update for the first time in two years

“Dale welcomes Victor Martec [sic] as the new chair of the ABA.”

The post was soon deleted after being flooded with comments proclaiming Amosa as the rightful chair.

It was a rare display of unity within the community and reminded Chris Amosa of the diversity Avondale offered. “We saw old white people, young white people, old brown people, young brown people all posting in support of Marcus and wanting change.”

Amosa, recalls one incident last September. It was before he was issued with a trespass order, and he visited Macdonald at his office.

“He was talking about some shop owners down the road and called them ‘those bungas’”. Bunga is a derogatory term for a Pacific Islander. “I’m used to that stuff and had business to take care of so I let it slide but thought it was weird he’d say that to a Pacific Islander. Then he talked about a cop he’d had a run-in with and called him ‘that coconut’.”

Amosa told his brother about the alleged remarks and he brought it up with Martick, who, Chris Amosa says, defended Macdonald’s use of the term ‘coconut’ by saying his own friend was Samoan “and I call him a coconut all the time”.

Martick and Macdonald strongly dispute this account of events. “Those referred in this email categorically deny these comments. Actually this make me feel sick and I have cc in our Solicitor to this email to respond on our behalf.”

In response to claims that the ABA unconstitutionally removed Amosa from the ABA and then elected a new chairman to replace him, Martick, acting as the self-titled “interim chair”, denied any wrongdoing.

“Marcus chaired the ABA meetings after the AGM, Marcus helped draft the new membership standards that the ABA constitution 12.2.4 allowed the ABA to create. Marcus helped draft the new standards and voted yes to adopt the standards that ultimately disqualified Marcus from being eligible to remain as a member of the ABA.

“We have followed the constitution to the best of our ability, if what we have done is considered is incorrect then the rational why needs to be explained to our committee.”

Mere hours after Martick’s email was sent, Auckland Council released a statement advising that they would be withholding funding from the ABA “until a number of conditions have been met”, including “a satisfactory audit” and the ABA demonstrating that “it is operating in accordance with its constitution”.

A withholding of funds would suggest a calling to account of the longstanding executive committee members, but it’s the business owners who will suffer. They’ll continue to pay their rates, but absent an association tasked with distributing the funding, they won’t receive any benefits from it.

In a letter to the committee, Auckland Council expressed “concerns regarding the ABA decision to invalidate the membership of Marcus Amosa following his election to the role of chair of the ABA … retrospectively invalidating an election result in this manner raises serious concerns regarding the governance of the ABA.”

After nearly two decades of uncontested leadership in the Avondale business community, a change has come. But the ABA committee of old has not gone quietly. On February 17, the ABA executive committee (now without the Amosas) released a response to the council, again denying any wrongdoing and explaining away the financial discrepancies as “simply an accounting error”. They stand by their decision to remove Amosa as chair and member of the ABA.

Despite the council explicitly stating that it “recognises Marcus Amosa is the elected chair of the ABA”, Amosa has received no word from the ABA about his erroneously disqualified membership, and is still trespassed from the office.

Marcus Amosa is the chair of the Avondale Business Association. Whether or not that means he can bring about any real change is yet to be determined.

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