Ousting ‘saddest day’ in local politics

Dean Taylor






Waikato Regional councillors, including underfire chairman Russ Rimmington, had the opportunity to state their position on the leadership of the council at an extraordinary meeting held Monday afternoon — with a resulting vote that saw Hamilton councillor Barry Quayle voted in to the top job after a majority of councillors backed the removal of the sitting chair. The extraordinary meeting of council was called after a requisition signed by eight councillors was delivered on April 17 to deal with matters associated with the role of chair. The main order of business was a resolution Rimmington, who was sat in the chair, bring the meeting to order and invite chief executive Chris McLay to address the room. McLay said given the seriousness of the decision council had to make, staff would outline the procedures. Management had also taken legal advice, which had been distributed to all councillors, and it was also his recommendation the meeting go into a public excluded session so their legal consultant could advise councillors in person and answer any questions. Accordingly the room was cleared and the livestream was discontinued. The session ran for 25 minutes. At the resumption of the extraordinary meeting deputy chairwoman Kataraina Hodge had taken the chair and Rimmington was seated at the table. First order of business was to allow presentations from Hamilton City deputy mayor Geoff Taylor and councillor Mark Bunting. The pair explained they had sought leave to address the meeting as private citizens, and were not representing Hamilton City Council. Speaking first, Bunting said he believed the regional councillors could make a grave mistake if they went through with the requisition to remove the chair. He said with local body elections just five months away it would look like a political move which would have a huge cost. Bunting added media would love the story, but that would detract from the good work council had undertaken and this is what this council would be remembered for. He said Rimmington could be confronting, but he encouraged conversations and discussions, which was needed to get through the challenges of governance. Taylor made the point that Rimmington did not compromise, but this was backed by a depth of intelligence and experience that was valuable to Hamilton and Waikato. He said a coup was a bad look for the council and it would deepen resentments and foster division and believed there was a way through using Code of Conduct processes. Their presentation was followed by the putting of the requisition, which was moved by Waipa-King Country councillor Stu Kneebone and seconded by ThamesCoromandel councillor Denis Tegg. Councillors were then given five minutes each to express their views on the requisition. Those opposing the requisition generally believed Rimmington had given exceptional service to the community over many years. Taupo-Rotorua councillor Kathy White said the chairman had been bold when needed and shown real leadership qualities. She added that removing the chair risked reputations and she believed council should look at Rimmington’s record and the evidence and find a better way to achieve a good outcome. Waihou councillors Stu Husband and Hugh Vercoe also opposed the acquisition. Husband said shooting the messenger wasn’t democratic and we should be able to voice our opinions. He also said there was no evidence about claims against Rimmington at this stage, with the outcome of a Press Council complaint still awaited. Vercoe described it as the saddest day in his 27 years of local government. He said we should be thanking Rimmington for his contribution to Hamilton and Waikato. Vercoe said he also wanted to see any evidence of wrongdoing before he could support the chair’s removal. Waikato councillor Pamela Storey believed constituents thought council had more important matters to attend to than who was chairman. She believed the process was a waste of ratepayer money because there was no evidence to back up claims against Rimmington. Storey said Rimmington had made apologies and undertaken training because of previous complaints, but was still leading a functional council, and she feared this would bring it into disrepute. Rimmington made submissions on his own behalf, saying he knew he was not perfect and was sometimes very “upfront”, but that was because he was passionate about local democracy. He said he had led a good council that had made significant progress on a number of issues and it had been acknowledged as being leaders in New Zealand. Rimmington also said the fact they had operated effectively during Covid and undertaken and completed a new-build to bring all council business to a centralised hub in Hamilton City was evidence of his strong and effective leadership. Rimmington’s fellow Hamilton councillors were split on the issue. Quayle simply believed there wasn’t the evidence for removal from the top position, and he believed councillors should be looking at what they had achieved this term under his leadership. However, Angela Strange and Jennifer Nickel said the chairman’s performance had not improved since matters had been raised starting last year. Strange said the culture of Waikato Regional Council needed attention, which should have been addressed from the top down, but wasn’t. Nickel said a majority of councillors had lost faith in Rimmington, especially over issues with “not sticking to the script”. She said a culture of complaints and counter-complaints had developed. Nickel also believed her constituents believed she was doing the right thing in supporting the requisition to remove the chair. Nga Hau E Wha councillor Tipa Mahuta said she respected Rimmington’s contribution, but not his leadership, saying he no longer had mana, either in council or in her community. She said he hadn’t proved to her that he wanted to chair a cogovernance council and that he had twice spoken for himself, and not council, which is something that should not happen. Hodge, who represents Nga Tai ki Uta, said as deputy chair she had been able to work with Rimmington on a one-to-one level, but she knew she had the support of her constituency when it came to backing his removal from the chair. As seconder, Tegg said his problem with Rimmington was his struggle to differentiate between his own opinions and council’s decisions. He said the warning from last year’s complaints went unheeded and the chair continued to misrepresent council’s position. Tegg said that misrepresentation was causing council’s reputation to suffer. Mover Kneebone said his issue was the lack of communication from the chairman after issues of performance were raised. He said in fact Rimmington seemed to believe if he ignored the issue it would go away. Kneebone said he had agonised over this decision, but had come to the conclusion that Rimmington had breached the trust of council by not coming to council with solutions to his behaviour. Kneebone said in the end it wasn’t simply about freedom of speech, but a lack of understanding as to how councillors felt about his behaviour and the need to address it. With submissions made, the vote was held and the requisition was upheld 8-6. Immediately following the vote, Rimmington said it was “disappointing” but “democracy has spoken”. He indicated there could be a judicial review of the decision. He thanked his supporters and also chief executive McLay for the professional way the matter had been handled. Nominations were then made for a new Waikato Regional Council chair, with only Hamilton constituent Barry Quayle put forward as a contender. The motion to formally appoint him was passed in a vote of 11-3. Interestingly the new chair was nominated by Rimmington, who said he had worked with Quayle previously as part of National Fieldays, as well as two-and-a-half years on the regional council, and he was impressed by his abilities. Following the meeting, Quayle reassured the community that decision making would be unaffected by the leadership change. “It is important going forward that this council acts as one and that we have cohesion. I am confident that all 14 councillors will be able to continue to respectfully and robustly discuss issues affecting the region, and make decisions that are in the best interests of the Waikato. “Throughout this triennium we’ve demonstrated that — despite at times divergent individual views — we can engage in full and frank discussions and make big decisions. That’s been evident with matters like the 10-year budget, our position on local government and Three Waters reform, our Covid-19 response, public transport, and most recently the management of pests in our region. “While there’s just a few months left in this term of council, there’s plenty more work to be done. “The coastal plan review is just one example of that — we’ll be working hard and closely with staff to ensure iwi, stakeholder and community views have been taken account ahead of notification. “Always at the front of our minds will be the vision we set as a council early in our term of caring for our place, empowering our people. We’ll live up to that, together.” Kneebone’s fellow Waipa-King Country councillor Andrew MacPherson of Te Awamutu did not speak at the meeting, but supported the removal of Rimmington. He told the Te Awamutu Courier he had made his views clear previously, and did not speak on Monday as he had stood for chair against Rimmington at the start of the term and did not want his position to be seen as simply political. He said he had learnt a lot from the chairman, who he described as a seasoned politician. But he also believed the right decision had been made and it was a sign of a high-performing organisation which encourages debate and displays a good level of governance. “We have done what highperforming organisations do over matters of performance,” he said. “We have taken positive steps to address the issues.” MacPherson said ratepayers can take confidence from the fact this council can make difficult and hard decisions when necessary.