A representation of the friendship between Michael Feyen and Ross Campbell (Image: Tina Tiller)

A beautiful local government friendship comes to an end

At the Horowhenua District council, the last three years have been a tale of two mates against the world. Alex Braae goes inside the friendship of mayor Michael Feyen and councillor Ross Campbell.

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To get a sense of how councillor Ross Campbell is seen by his colleagues, you just have to look at the other side of the council table when he speaks. It’s a wall of faces betraying frustration and fury, sometimes derision too. Any compliments he gets from them are backhanded, and any support is qualified.

But there’s always one friendly face Campbell can turn to. If he faces slightly to his right, there at the head of the table is mayor Michael Feyen. The two of them always have each other’s backs.

That isn’t necessarily of political benefit to either of them in the brutal world of Levin local government. They’re often the only voices standing up to the entire rest of the council. Over the past three years Feyen has fought repeated battles to get Campbell in as the deputy mayor. The rest of the council refused to allow it, and installed local builder and developer Wayne Bishop instead.

The most incredible moment in the saga came at a Local Government NZ conference, when a remit came up on whether mayors should be allowed to appoint deputies, or if it should be a matter for councils to vote on. A clear majority of the council directed Feyen to vote for the latter, but he went rogue and voted how he wanted to – with Bishop going on to describe it as “a sad day for democracy.” It was one of many fights in three years of turmoil.

The opposing councillors have a fair point to make there. Even over and above the conventions around councils being directed by the majority, both Feyen and Campbell had relatively slim wins in the 2016 race. Feyen beat the incumbent Brendan Duffy by just 138 votes, in a contest split by two other candidates. And Campbell won a two-way shootout in the Mirinui ward (around Shannon) with about 53% of the vote.

They’re hardly storming mandates. But they are wins all the same, and Campbell and Feyen have argued ever since that those wins haven’t been treated with respect by fellow councillors, and even council staff. There was a bizarre stoush at the start of the term which exemplified a lot of it. Feyen wanted a PA, and he wanted to make his own choice. It took eight months to get one, and council’s chief executive made the decision. It still rankles, and both men suggested it was symbolic of council staff being on the side of other councillors, rather than the mayor.

A blurry photo of the body language of fellow councillors while Ross Campbell was speaking (Alex Braae)

In an interview with Campbell after the council meeting, (which had been intended to be the final one of the term, but was adjourned halfway through) Campbell made a series of allegations and allusions which are entirely unprintable here. Some were directed at people who might well have still been in the building at the time.

“Beware of any councils that seem to be running fine. They’re hiding everything,” he warned. “With councils that are quiet, they’re keeping everything underground. They want to look like they’re shiny. But a healthy council is one that debates openly and transparently, in spite of what is going on.”

He was turning up as a member of the public for well over a decade before deciding he had enough time to stand, and says a few people around Mirinui talked him into it. “I knew how the inside worked, and I came up against this brick wall which was regulating our communities in such a way that they couldn’t grow, they couldn’t go anywhere without spending a lot of money at council.”

That was the 2013 election, when both Campbell and Feyen were first elected to their wards. But they knew each other long before that. Campbell is the owner of Owlcatraz, the cult-favourite bird park in Shannon. And Feyen used to run a tour company called Footprints which would bring guests through. They got on well, and became closer friends when they realised they could end up council together.

“He came in, and I came in, and we came up against this barrier. You weren’t to ask questions.” He alleges that he got kicked of the Projects Committee by the former mayor for doing just that, and then when Feyen stuck up for him, he got booted too. “So I said to Michael, we’re going to have to put our heads up above the sand, or else we’re just as guilty as anybody else here. He agreed.”

Campbell, left, and Feyen after one of the former’s brief tenures as deputy mayor began (via Facebook)

Honesty came up a lot during the interview. “I said to [Michael] I’ll stick with you, but you’ve got to be honest. He got in, and it was such a massive swing. And we worked man, we worked hard to get him in. And the people could see we were fighting the past regime. But what happened was, the councillors of old who were under the previous mayor got in as well. And their little hen had got his head chopped off.”

Campbell sees his mayor as a visionary, both for Horowhenua and for the very essence of how local government exists. That came through in Feyen’s proposal to form a political party composed of mayors, with the intention of forcing issues onto central government’s agenda. The strategy would be to primarily stand in electorates, though there are probably a limited number of mayors who could actually take on party machines.

Alas, when the adjourned meeting is completed, Campbell and Feyen will no longer share the council table. Campbell is into his 70s, and wants to spend as much time as he can with his wife. In a phone call after the meeting, Feyen expressed sadness at seeing Campbell go, but said he understood it was for the right reasons.

Campbell’s not worried about Feyen being left all alone – in fact, he’s confident a new crop of councillors willing to back him will be elected. The state of the race means that might not be quite so likely. Right at the top of the ballot, Feyen himself is facing stern challenges from two sitting councillors.

Levin ward councillor Victoria Kaye-Simmons is one of them, describing herself in a speech at Waitārere Beach as an inclusive leader, who leads from within. Her messaging throughout the campaign has been positive, but she did note that over the last three years, “tolerance, patience and understanding has a whole new meaning for me today. Many character-building moments meant the struggle was very real.”

Bernie Wanden, a first term councillor also from the Levin ward, is also putting his hand up. His message is about the “real work” that most of the council got on with during the turbulent struggles with Feyen. It is notable that both are putting themselves forward as team players. It is also fair to assume that a strong share of the region would be keen to see the back of the incumbent.

Regardless of how the vote goes, it seems clear Feyen and Campbell will remain friends. There was a genuine affection in how both talked about the other, both in the interview with Campbell, and speaking with Feyen the next day.

After the meeting, while I was sitting down with Campbell for the interview, the mayor walked past on his way out the door. He spotted his friend the councillor, raised a hand and called out “peace and love” to him. It sounded like it came from the heart.

The Spinoff local election coverage is made possible thanks to The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.

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