It started quietly in May with the sudden departure of South Wairarapa District Council chief executive Harry Wilson, with a confidential legal settlement in which he is understood to have been paid out about $80,000 in notice.

Then there was a code of conduct complaint against new mayor Martin Connelly over public criticism of his officials, as a staff exodus began. The attrition rate has nearly tripled to 22 percent; eight of the 74 roles at the small council now sit vacant.

The final straw was at a council meeting when Connelly derided a member of the public for not knowing the word “hyperbole”.

Yesterday, the council’s crisis came to the head when all nine councillors voted ‘no confidence’ in the mayor and confronted him with their concerns. These concerns included an interview with Newsroom, in which he’d said he’d like to sell off the district’s three swimming pools and outsource its libraries.

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Connelly, for one, knows all about hyperbole. He accused the councillors of an ambush: “I’m certainly not about to be repentant,” he tells Newsroom.

It’s the latest council to fall into disarray, after problems at Tauranga and Invercargill, and a stand-off involving the newly-elected young mayor of Gore that led to the resignation of that council’s chief executive, too.

It’s also painfully close to home for Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty, who is fighting to hold onto his marginal Wairarapa electorate in this week’s election. 

“As local MP my hope is that the district’s elected representatives can work together to sort this for the good of the local population.”
– Kieran McAnulty, Local Government Minister

He’s asked the local government unit at the Department of Internal Affairs to provide support to the council, but says it’s not yet at the point of replacing the councillors with a commission. That will be the last resort.

“It’s a very high threshold for intervention,” he tells Newsroom.

“To intervene I have to be advised that the council was unable to perform its core functions. I have not had any advice that this is the case.

The front page of this morning’s Wairarapa Times-Age is forthright about the council crisis. Image: Supplied

“Under the Act, an intervention is a very strong and last resort measure that would apply to the mayor and councillors equally. As local MP, my hope is that the district’s elected representatives can work together to sort this for the good of the local population.”

The vote of no confidence was taken at an extraordinary meeting of the council yesterday morning. Deputy mayor Melissa Sadler-Futter and the other eight councillors passed the vote unanimously. “This decision reflected the collective disappointment in the Mayor’s absence and frustration of the council,” they said.

“We understand that this course of action may raise concerns within our community. We want to assure our residents that we, the South Wairarapa councillors, stand united and resolute in our commitment to creating the best environment for robust decision-making on your behalf. The vote of no confidence signifies our desire for meaningful change and our expectation of enhanced performance from the Mayor, both for ourselves and our community.”

Connelly was notified of the meeting, but sent his apologies. He tells Newsroom he’s been dealing with some health issues that prevented him attending. “I feel a responsibility to attend to those first.”

So shortly afterwards, Sadler-Futter and some of the other councillors met with him at the council offices.

“It was quite a strange meeting really,” he tells Newsroom.  “One of them starts off by saying, look Martin, I did vote for you and I’m one of your biggest fans. But …

“So that was slightly surreal.”

Connelly points out that the vote of no confidence has no legal effect; he is elected by the community so the councillors have no power to demand his resignation. “Obviously what I will try and do is regain their confidence, by whatever means would appear to work. And obviously that’s something I can’t decide unilaterally.

“I haven’t contemplated resigning. You’ll be the first to know if I do, I promise.”

He says he’s had differences with his deputy and councillors that have got to the point where they’ve sought assistance from Local Government NZ, and he believes she’s leading the charge against him.

(Sadler-Futter and other councillors dispute that, saying the action was unanimous. “Every councillor feels that we all jointly initiated this action, both in writing the open letter to Martin and then deciding to publish the letter,” says councillor Kaye McAulay. “We agreed that we had all endlessly tried to get through to him.”)

Connelly and Sadler-Futter were both new to council at last year’s election, as were six other councillors. And with the departure of Harry Wilson, that left an enormous gap in institutional knowledge.

He and Sadler-Futter do agree that there have been stark differences over the extent to which he believes the council needs to cut its capital and operational expenditure, after the biggest rates rises in the country under previous mayors.

Just this week, they announced the appointment of a new chief executive, Janice Smith from the Far North District Council. While they don’t say it in so many words, it’s apparent she’s expected to wield a hatchet to cut costs.

Connelly points to her long experience in financial and staff management. “I think we will find that she helps clear the quagmire,” he says. “I’m very confident of that.”

Sadler-Futter and the other eight councillors made public a copy of the letter they’d send Connelly, that details a long list of concerns. These include his “rude and abrupt” behaviour towards members of the public at council meetings.

They cite his “condescending” treatment last week of a resident making a submission, who didn’t recognise his use of the word “hyperbole”. Connelly has suggested he needed to go away and do his homework. 

(Speaking to Newsroom, he stands by his “curt” treatment of the man. “Clearly he was someone who was trying to take the mickey out of us.”)

The councillors also raise concern about his “disrespectful and dismissive behaviour” towards third-party presenters and staff, that left some feeling undervalued and emotionally bruised. “There have been many occasions where your actions have led to individuals expressing the view that they no longer wish to be associated with South Wairarapa District Council as a result of your actions.”

They point to the increased staff attrition, saying several employees had cited his behaviour as the main reason for them quitting. 

They also say he missed key meetings and workshops, including one critical to preparing the council’s longterm plan, while meanwhile meddling in operational matters.

Finally, they say he acts in isolation without consulting other councillors, both in decision-making and in comments to media. “You are unnecessarily provocative on social media and create a divide with certain members of the community with whom you may have a grievance,” they say. “Your desire to now allow council officers to provide fact-checking on your media commentary is a huge risk to our reputation and yet it continues unchecked.”

This week, Connelly stands by his comments to Newsroom about reviewing services like swimming pools, libraries and the ownership of a fleet of cars. He also says the council outsources many of its services to out-of-town providers, like water and wastewater to Wellington Water, and waste and cleaning to Hutt-based Supercare NZ.

He wants to pull these sorts of contracts back to Wairarapa, potentially in-house at council, so that ratepayer money stays in the community.

“There’s certain things we have a great deal of trouble wit,h mainly roads and water, and Three Waters systems. None of which is necessarily that unusual in this part of the country,” he says.

“We’ve got something like 600 kilometres of roads and roughly 200 kilometres of shingle roads. And a number of them being out of out the coast are in fact very vulnerable to things like Cyclone Gabrielle. We were very lucky not to have had a lot worse problems whenh Cyclone Gabrielle came along – the roading network is a problem. We’ve got one road already that basically collapsed and had to be patched up. And yes, the financial arrangements for doing that are unaffordable.”

Over the past three years the council has spent about $17m on its roads, despite having a rate-take of barely $21m.

Local Government NZ has already been called in to advise on resolving the differences in the council. President Sam Broughton confirms the association is aware of the issues. “We are supporting South Wairarapa District Council to put effective governance structures in place to meet the community’s expectations.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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