Mayor/CE standoff needs resolution


The country’s youngest mayor, Gore District Council’s Ben Bell described his first 100 days in the job as a fun ride, but motion sickness and speed wobbles might be setting in now.

In the 100-day interview he said the massive media coverage of him when he was first elected made things more challenging, but it was “fantastic exposure” for Gore.

Mr Bell attracted considerable attention, both for being the youngest mayor at 23, and his ousting of six-term mayor Tracy Hicks by a mere eight votes.

It did not take long for that gloss to come off, however, and often since the eastern Southland town and its council have been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Mr Bell got offside with senior management and much of the council when he initially attempted to bring in his own personal assistant, then there was not unanimous support for a councillors’ retreat, he had to back down over his choice as deputy mayor, and the organisation of committees was also fraught.

Given the closeness of the vote, the popularity of the previous mayor, and his lack of council experience, it was always going to be a difficult job for Mr Bell.

Being a mayor requires developing and maintaining constructive relationships with councillors, some of whom will not agree with your views, and council staff.

Transitioning from one mayor to another, with possibly a noticeably different style, cannot always be easy for chief executives and senior council staff. Mostly, such changes, however testing, occur without the relationships becoming news.

But in Gore’s case, it has recently been revealed Mr Bell and chief executive Steve Parry are not speaking to each other, or meeting, and the pair have been engaged in some sort of mediation process since December.

As former Queenstown mayor Jim Boult said once, the relationship between mayor and chief executive is vital.

He did not always agree with his chief executive, but they had the ability to work their way through matters, and he could not imagine how a council could function properly without having regular dialogue between the mayor and CE.


Down the road from Gore, in Invercargill, we saw only too well in the last city council’s term how difficult it is for council processes when that mayor/CE relationship is fractured and communication is dealt with through a go-between.

In Gore, in the meantime, that is what will be happening.

At a lengthy behind closed doors meeting last week, it was decided a dedicated intermediary should be appointed.

The lucky bearer of this snazzy title, yet to be ratified, is understood to be Cr Richard McPhail. As a former senior police officer Cr McPhail will be experienced at keeping the peace.

He will be dedicated in both senses of the word, no doubt, but we wonder how long the dedication of any dedicated intermediary might be expected to last.

It is not a situation any councillor would expect to be in when they took their oath of office.

Regardless of how Mr Bell and Mr Parry reached this impasse, a situation unlikely to be fully revealed any time soon, if ever, the dedicated intermediary cannot be a long-term solution to this situation.

We note Local Government New Zealand has been liaising with Mr Bell and Mr Parry. It can see the need for it to play a greater role in preventing the escalation of tough relationship issues such as this. It is in the initial stage of developing a resolution service offering services from peer support through to facilitation, but it would require investment from councils.

That will not come quickly enough for Mr Bell and Mr Parry’s relationship which, if it cannot be saved, and soon, could end messily and expensively. That will not be fantastic exposure for Gore