With NZ’s youngest ever mayor facing a no-confidence vote, it’s not always obvious what he’s alleged to have done.
Less than a week after his 24th birthday, Mayor Ben Bell today faces the judgment of the councillors of Gore, who are expected to vote at an extraordinary meeting on a no-confidence motion. Were the motion to be carried, Bell would not be obliged to resign; the eight-vote margin by which he was directly elected in October is the vote that matters. But after a bumpy, sometimes ugly seven months since the election, it would amount to a fresh nadir.
As the 10 elected councillors in the deep south prepare to vote – they’re also considering whether to urge central government to step in and barring the mayor from committees – the paramount, surprisingly opaque question is this: what did Ben Bell do? How is it that a “firestorm exploded”, as TVNZ Sunday put it, after he won office? Just what is it, exactly, that he stands accused of? Specifics are scarce. Answers instead lie somewhere in a swirl of broken relationships, toxic culture, and seething, deep-rooted enmities.
The mayor v the CEO
At the heart of it all is a clash. A clash of approach, a clash of culture, a clash of personality, a clash of pretty much everything between the elected mayor and Stephen Parry, the Gore District Council CEO of more than 20 years.
The pair had “a very strained relationship”, said Parry in March. “Trust has eroded significantly.” Mediation quickly fell apart. An intermediary was appointed, so that they didn’t have to meet directly. In April, an independent review was commissioned in the hope of resolving the standoff. That failed to pause the discord, however, and last week seven councillors urged Bell to resign.
But what was it all about? “The issue has been the mayor’s preference to take advice from others – and earlier offers of assistance were rebuffed,” was how Parry put it.
Zoomers, boomers and phone messages
A clash of generations, perhaps, too. “Things got off to a rocky start,” 60-year-old Parry said last month. After the election, he phoned the youngest ever New Zealand mayor “to talk through some transitional issues”, but didn’t get a reply to a request for “10 minutes of his time”.
The response from Bell, speaking for his generation, though most of his generation aren’t the mayor: “He did call me but I didn’t see it. I don’t have any evidence he left me a voice message, either. When you’re a new mayor coming in you would kind of expect an email or a text.”
Complaints swiftly followed from council staff who claimed there had been a lack of communication on the part of the mayor, as well as an unwillingness to listen, with some saying it had adversely impacted their mental health. Others questioned his ability to organise his own time.
Councillors decry style
During a March council meeting when councillors worked through a timeline of the mayor-CEO relationship, Bell walked out. He was accused by one of believing he had “presidential powers”.
The prospect of a no-confidence vote first emerged at the end of March, with one councillor lamenting a “very traumatic time”. Again, however, there was a notable absence of specifics.
Murky, messy local networks
Ben Bell is a relative newcomer to Gore, having first struck success with a medical identity bracelet as a teenager in the tropical climes of Horowhenua. But he has a family link. And festering in the political soils of the south is some fascinating backstory – “family ties, allegiances and grudges that go back decades”, as Sunday put it.
Kristin Hall summed up the most tortuous and intriguing example this way: “Mayor Ben Bell’s mother is Rebecca Taylor, who used to work at the Gore District Council. Her employment ended last year with a legal dispute that cost the council more than $300,000 in legal fees alone. Rebecca now works for councillor Joe Stringer, whose partner is Ben’s former assistant, and they live next door to Ben. Rebecca works in the same office as councillor Robert McKenzie, who ran for council as part of a team with Joe Stringer and Ben. Rebecca was the campaign manager, and she’s influenced public opinion of her son since her exit from council.” And breathe.
Ben Bell rejects any suggestion his run for mayor might be linked to what happened with his mum. “I haven’t come in trying to get rid of him [Parry] or to upset the council in any way,” he said.
A CEO under pressure, too
While Bell faces the wrath of councillors, Parry, whose contract was renewed a couple of days before the election, has his own vocal detractors. Doug Walker, a former chief financial officer at the council, told Sunday that there had been a culture of bullying and plotting at the council. He was of the view that Parry was “out to get me”. According to Newsroom there were questions around Parry “arriving unannounced on [Walker’s] doorstep in London”. Parry rejects the allegations.
An online petition calling for Parry’s resignation has collected more than 3,000 virtual signatures. Launched by resident Sean Burke, it decries the “efforts being made by a select few to oust our newly elected mayor … driven by a select few of the ‘old guard’ on council” and a “toxic, bullying culture”. Questions have been raised, too, about severance payments and accompanying non-disclosure agreements during Parry’s time in the role.
Tracy Hicks, the seven-term mayor edged out by Bell in October, defended Parry as “professional, capable, competent”. He told Sunday that the CEO did not, however, “suffer fools gladly”.
Where does that leave us?
Something is rotten in the district of Gore. On that just about everyone agrees. Some say Bell is out of his depth. Others see ageism at play. To some, the mayor fails to understand how to work with council. To other, decades of faction-making and patronage are to blame.
Ultimately, it comes down to culture and trust, ideas that are nebulous as well as critical. But in the absence of any serious and substantial allegations against Bell, is it enough to demand a directly elected leader resign? Do not mistake red mist for a smoking gun.