Documents leaked to Newsroom have revealed that ongoing tensions with the chief executive of the West Coast Regional Council triggered the dumping of its chairman, Allan Birchfield.
The outspoken Greymouth gold miner who was the second-highest polling councillor in the October elections was rolled in a near-unanimous vote by his fellow councillors last month, a move that mystified many electors and angered his supporters.
Councillors were cryptic in their comments, hinting at a gulf between Birchfield and council management and fears that a commissioner might be foisted on the local authority.
But a letter from lawyers acting for chief executive Heather Mabin makes it clear she not only pulled the pin on the chairman, but effectively chose his replacement.
The highly qualified Mabin was planning to leave the council this June, announcing her intention at the first post-election council meeting when Birchfield was re-installed as chair.
But the letter to the council’s lawyers, dated December 5, 2022, shows she was on the verge of quitting sooner – if not on the spot.
“Ms Mabin has thought carefully about what you suggested on behalf of council, ie that there could be a workaround to enable her to stay on until 30 June 2023 as had been proposed,” Mabin’s lawyer writes.
“You said the majority of councillors wanted her to stay on and there could be an arrangement whereby Ms Mabin did not report to or interact with Mr Birchfield.
“Ms Mabin was gratified to hear this but remains uncertain whether she has the full support of all the elected members [other than Mr Birchfield].”
While the chief executive was “deeply committed” to her role and wanted to leave with dignity after recruiting a suitable successor, she was concerned about how the “logistics” would work, her lawyer said.
Reputational risks all round
“Working around a chair who is hostile and disrespectful will be difficult. There will be reputational risks for all involved … Ms Mabin is concerned about … the [council’s] inability to guarantee Mr Birchfield will not thwart the arrangement, or behave or speak inappropriately towards or about Ms Mabin again.”
Mr Birchfield would have to be fully supportive of the arrangements and give his undertaking that he would do nothing to “prejudice the situation or harm Ms Mabin”, the letter continues.
“We are also concerned about the risk of media and public speculation if it is obvious, as it may well be, that there is effectively no working relationship between Mr Birchfield as chair and Ms Mabin as CEO.”
Mabin was also worried that someone might leak information to the media that would harm her reputation or the council’s, her lawyer said.
But she was prepared to consider a proposal that would “address all of these matters convincingly”.
“She considers the only realistic option is that Mr Birchfield steps down as chair and is replaced by either Mr Haddock or Mr Dooley.”
There were further strings attached to Mabin’s agreement to stay on.
“In order to agree to such a course of action, Ms Mabin would require agreement to her exit terms and the ability to trigger them at will.”
Those terms were “eminently reasonable in the circumstances”, the lawyer declared.
They include payment of her full salary until June 30 this year plus an additional six months taxed compensation of $50,000, legal costs of $6000 and the transfer of a council vehicle.
And in a confidential record of settlement: “mutual non-disparagement, positive communications and references.”
It’s not known how many of the exit conditions the council agreed to.
But deputy chair Peter Haddock was duly elected as council chair as soon as Birchfield was ejected.
Newsroom asked Birchfield what it was he said or did that might have triggered Mabin’s ultimatum and his demise as chair.
He says he can’t comment because he’s bound by a confidentiality agreement.
Mabin could not be reached for comment in time for publication but has been invited to respond.
The former Hawkes Bay accountant and company director joined the council in 2021, after the previous CEO clashed with Birchfield and quit seven months into the job over alleged bullying and interference by the chair.
Birchfield has in the recent past been openly critical of some management decisions including one to seek a legal opinion on his suggestion the council dump the new draft West Coast district plan, one of his many bêtes noires.
He’s also been consistently critical of government policies that affect Coast landowners and that council staff are obliged by statute to enforce, including the freshwater and wetland regulations – a stance popular with his supporters.
Birchfield attended yesterday’s monthly council meeting as a councillor and says he will stay on, for now at least. Mabin was also present.
“I’ve had a lot of pressure from people who want me to stay so I’ll hang in there and give it a go,” Birchfield says.
Bumps in the road
If it’s been a rocky road to this point between the pair, the path ahead is not looking much smoother.
At yesterday’s meeting, Birchfield said 30 staff had quit in the past 18-months and that should be investigated because the council’s ability to get work done had been badly affected.
And for the second time in a year, he asked bluntly if the council was in fact solvent.
“We’re told we are because they count our stop banks and flood walls as assets. But they’re actually liabilities – you can’t sell them to cover debt.”
There have been instances of the council using government funding for specific projects to cover general expenses, he says.
“We only found out late last year that $720,000 NZTA [Waka Kotahi] prepaid for flood protection work at Franz Josef was used for other things. It wasn’t ring-fenced.
“Now when that work goes ahead the council will have to find the money somewhere else.”
Council risk and assurance committee chair Frank Dooley offered to sit down with Birchfield and go through the accounts line by line.
But the former chair is having none of that.
“We’re not accountants … I want to know if any more funding has gone into the general pot and how it’s been accounted for and I want a clear, simple statement that I and any other West Coaster can understand.”
If Birchfield’s exasperated critics are expecting him to go quietly, they may be in for a long wait.
Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund