Examples of the NZPFU ballot boxes for the vote for the national vice president. Photos: supplied.

The national firefighters’ union has taken the extraordinary step of passing a resolution rejecting all complaints from its members over bullying by union officials or over its accounts and meetings.

The New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union national committee, which is embroiled in a dispute with two of its longstanding Auckland leaders, who it expelled, passed the motion last month as controversy built in its membership over the action, its operations and accountability and misuse of its powers.

It rules out complaints against “union officials and concerning actions and non-actions over bullying, ratification, minutes of meetings, union accounts and confidentiality of information.”

Now, in a further twist, the two expelled members of the Auckland local branch, former president Sulu Devoe and secretary John Waldow, have engaged Wellington law firm Rainey Collins to pursue legal avenues to stop the national union elections for vice president.

Sulu Devoe said “We’re liaising with our lawyers as we speak. It’s quite simple, John Waldow was a candidate for the National Vice Presidency and following the unlawful action by the committee expelling him (along with me) he is no longer a candidate. If we are rightfully reinstated, he needs to be reinstated as a candidate.”

Despite formal requests to the union to suspend the election “until such times as the validity of John Waldow’s expulsion be resolved,” the vote for the national vice presidency is now underway.

The union is to hold its national conference in Christchurch this week, having moved venues from Auckland after the fallout with the two Auckland leaders. The Auckland Local branch has 600 firefighters and contributes $300,000 annually to the national union coffers.

The election for national president was held separately, and finalised last month.

Also in contention is the system used by the NZPFU for elections, which has become something of a joke among members at fire stations because of the way the old-style, paper-based election balloting is conducted.

At the heart of concerns is a lack of security, with no identifying marks on ballot forms and the failure of a system to audit the integrity of the ballot; for what is a nationwide election.

One station in Wellington wrote on the cardboard ballot box “Ultra modern NZPFFU vice president voting box. Electronic voting coming 2040”

There have been calls going back years asking for a more secure electronic voting system, similar to what is now used by the teachers and nurses unions.

The local Wellington branch secretary summed it up recently when he emailed the newly elected president of the union, Ian wright saying:

“Wellington Local …. again want to emphasise the need for the modernisation of union rules to allow for electronic voting utilising modern IT systems. We are concerned that a growing cloud of mistrust is forming over our organisation and the only way to stop this is to ensure a transparent election process.”

On the back of this, formal complaints were lodged with the union over the election for president last month.

One of the complaints says:

“That the national returning officer Derek Best had the opportunity to, and did open up ballots without scrutineers present.”

“That at 9.50am Wednesday 17 October, Derek Best was found alone in the board room of the NZPFFU office Lower Hutt by Northern Branch returning officer Grant Mitcheson, opening the sealed envelopes containing ballot papers un supervised.”

Derek Best did not respond to this union complainant but in an email to the Wellington branch (who also mentioned it in part of a substantive email), Best addressed it saying: “Any complaints about voting process are without any substance – they are lies”.

In 2012 a complaint was also lodged about the election process.  The following is an extract from a reply sent by Best dated August 17, 2012.

John Waldow.

“In terms of dealing with this, it was necessary to refer to what the Rules provide.

A.17 Procedures in Respect of Disputed Elections

Where any Union member is of the opinion that there has been an irregularity in the conduct of any ballot, or any offence has been committed, such member shall report same in writing to the Union Secretary within 14 days of the declaration of such result.

“You will note that in fact this rule provides no process as to what the Secretary is to do with such a report.”

It went on to say

“The union committee has considered your concerns/complaints and has considered legal advice received from the union’s solicitors.

After discussion and consideration of the advice received, the Committee resolved:

– That the election result for President stand; and

– That Oakley Moran be instructed to review the Union Rules Procedures to eliminate inconsistencies and to provide for a process to deal with complaints of irregularities in any Ballot.

Your sincerely

Derek Best, Secretary

Asked about this complaint by Newsroom in connection with the latest allegations, Best responded by saying “Was there a complaint in 2012? I think another good story but no evidence it is true – I don’t recall one.”

The question now being asked by some firefighters is why the person who is actually being complained about, (in this case, Union secretary and returning officer Best) is investigating himself and answering, or in many cases not answering the formal complaints?

Best responded by saying “the person being complained about is not answering the complaints, but there is a scattergun approach. Everyone is being complained about”.

Firefighters believe it is a further illustration that there is too little governance and accountability in the NZPFU union, which administers $3 million in funding from firefighters.

Many complaints were made about the most recent union elections for president, one dated October 7 pointed out six specific alleged rule breaches. The union has not replied and this is why:

Five days after the compliant was made, on Friday October 12 at the national union committee meeting held in Wellington, (the same meeting which ruled to expel Devoe and Waldow), a resolution was carried over complaints.

RESOLUTION: That the Committee rejects all complaints received about Union Officials and concerning actions or non-actions over bullying, Ratification, minutes of meetings, Union Accounts and confidentiality of information.

The sweeping motion was passed and seems to put paid to members questioning the national committee over concerns such as the balloting and its internal processes.

The expelled Waldow, a union official for 11 years, explains it like this:

“We have had a union boss in Derek Best who has never admitted any wrong doing and never apologised. He’s been running the union without any adult supervision for over a decade. Just like the controller in Thomas the Tank engine he’s run the union like an oligarchy”

The original expulsion of Waldow and Devoe came after the Wellington head office objected to a notice sent to Auckland Local members by the branch leadership ahead of the election for president. It questioned the eventual winner, Wright’s, connections to Auckland and his private business interests.  The national union demanded the notice be retracted and the Auckland leadership apologise. When they refused, saying the notice was correct, the two branch leaders were expelled.

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