Every local government election produces three or four problem children, but how bad do things need to get before the Government expels them? 

Invercargill and Tauranga are shaping up to be the problem children of the local government class of 2019.

Both have been put on watch by the Department of Internal Affairs, which is sending observers in to keep an eye on how they are doing.

Wellington City Council isn’t in great shape either, but appears to have avoided a similar fate by appointing a mediator off its own back (one with a history of supporting Crown observers) rather than waiting for the Department of Internal Affairs to ship one in.

One front page of the Dominion Post in April had the mayors of several other cities in the Wellington region calling on Wellington City councillors to “pull finger” after the council reportedly split along left-right party political lines

Local Government NZ President Stuart Crosby said there are about three or four councils every election who experience “relationship difficulties” and can’t agree on anything.

So, why these councils and why now? The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) and the Minister in charge of local government appear to be turning their focus to political issues at local councils because small-time squabbles at the council table are threatening to derail big decisions.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said she is conscious councils have long-term plan (LTP) decisions to make and the deadline for members to come to a consensus on them is tight.

“Decisions of such significance are matters that I would, again, ask the council: ‘Is it performing in such a way that they can take significant decisions?

“Are they operating collegially with consensus and with a degree of attention to the issues before them?’.”

The Taxpayers’ Union has stepped in to the debate too, calling for Labour and National to allow voters in local elections to “recall” candidates elected to both councils if 10 percent of voters petition for it. 

Their northern group chair William Foster said the decision could open the door to four-year council terms because voters would have the ability to more easily get rid of a dud councillor.

‘The Shadbolts never owned any slaves’

Regardless of whether long-serving Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt is still up to the job, the fact his fellow councillors pounced on his formal mayoral report to council is probably an indication some wouldn’t be disappointed if he left.

“The Shadbolts never owed any slaves. In fact, if the definition of slave labour is working without wages, we were slaves.

Tiwai’s closure was the big topic of the day, but Shadbolt chose to use his entire report to reflect on how his European ancestors were brought over to Australia as near-slaves.

He wrote: “The Shadbolt’s [sic] never owed any slaves. In fact, if the definition of slave labour is working without wages, we were slaves. Between 1788 and 1808, 162,000 convicts were transported from Britain and Ireland to penal colonies in Australia.

“Almost 20 percent of modern Australians in addition to two million British are descended from transported convicts. There has been a huge emotional response to the tragic shooting of two police officers in West Auckland. Having such a small population means the impact on small communities is felt throughout New Zealand. I was raised on a small orchard in Massey.

His fellow councillors took advantage of the situation to air their concerns over the abrupt subject changes in his report and about his fitness to be Mayor – a concern Shadbolt strongly pushed back against in the Otago Daily Times. 

Things got worse from there. One councillor had a code of conduct complaint filed against her by the council’s CEO while another refused to sign any document requiring him to abide by commercial confidentiality clauses.


In Tauranga, highlights of a Mayor versus Council clash included Mayor Tenby Powell labelling one councillor a “softc..k” and another “Judas” in emails and texts released under the Official Information Act and reported on by Stuff‘s Matt Shand.

The councillors opposing him (nicknamed “The Six”) don’t seem to have done themselves many favours either by throwing plenty of insults the Mayor’s way and mocking another councillor for wearing a “frilly top and white pants”.

Mahuta said it wasn’t unusual for councils to have disagreements, but where those led to “fundamental challenges with decision-making at the council level”, an observer could be called upon. 

The closure of Tiwai Point was the local topic of the day, but Shadbolt chose to address slavery in his Mayoral report. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

For those observers to result in an entire council being fired and replaced with a commissioner would require the problems to be significant and unresolvable.

“If we look at Invercargill. What we’ve got is DIA going in an observer status capacity.

“We’ll be asking some questions of the council … [and] for elected representatives and the CEO to agree on a set of issues that inhibit their ability to perform as a council.”

Firing a council

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern found herself fielding questions from Mike Hosking about what her plans were for both of those councils during a Newstalk ZB interview on Tuesday morning after both councils received letters from the DIA.

“Mike, when has this Government ever taken over a council … we are not taking over a democratically elected council,” Ardern told Hosking.

While Labour hasn’t dismissed any councils yet this time, around two councils were replaced with commissioners under National’s watch: Environment Canterbury (ECan) in 2010 and Kaipara District Council in 2012.

However, when a government steps in and takes over a council it can sometimes cause blowback at a local level for the government involved.

“The Kaipara council was stood down by the National government and I think that went down really badly [during the 2015 Northland by-election]. We lost faith in the National Party.”

When Federated Farmers Northland president John Blackwell spoke to Newsroom earlier this year, he said Winston Peters won the Northland election partly on the back of ill-feeling over the Kaipara District Council’s dismissal in 2015.

“The Kaipara council was stood down by the National government and I think that went down really badly [during the 2015 Northland by-election]. We lost faith in the National Party.”

LGNZ’s Crosby said the dismissal of a council was a big decision. A crown observer was an interim step and they would be sent in on Mahuta’s behalf and would report back to her.

“My observation of both those councils – both in Tauranga and Invercargill – is they are delivering their services to the community well.

“The communities are not at risk. This is just internal disagreements that are, frankly, out of control.

“They need to address them and address them as quickly as they can.”

Mahuta said the observers would explore whether there was any cause for an intervention by central Government. One issue would be whether elected representatives were sticking to their own code of conduct.

She would need to be assured both councils would take “significant steps” to resolve the issues that had plagued their decision-making and which could cause further issues.

“When it gets to the point where DIA is coming in as an independent observer, there’s a higher level of obligation for the council, its elected representatives and CEO to address the issues that matter and lift their performance.

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