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Accusations fly at a raucous council meeting

Accusations of grandstanding, conversations in public exclusion, and clap-backs between elected members – Thursday night’s Masterton District Council [MDC] meeting did not lack passion as councillors sought to strike the lowest rates increase while maintaining levels of service.

The meeting, which began at 6pm, went into public exclusion just before the two-hour mark and returned for a final resolution at about 9pm.

The resolution was that the council proceeds with the activities and budget outlined in the 2023-24 Annual Plan Consultation Document as modified by council resolutions from a recent deliberations meeting, and with an overall reduction in council budgets of $589,000, to target an average rates increase of 6.2 per cent.

This is a drop from the 7.6 per cent average rates rise proposed in the Annual Plan Consultation Document, although it was not made clear where the $589,000 reduction would come from as this was discussed during the public-excluded part of the meeting.

The final resolution was moved by councillor Marama Tuuta and seconded by councillor Craig Bowyer.

All were in favour, with the exception of councillors Tim Nelson and Tom Hullena.

The purpose of the meeting was for councillors to discuss the implications of reducing the proposed personnel budget for 2023-24, as mooted by councillor Brent Goodwin.

However, at Thursday’s meeting, councillors were warned that doing so would impact levels of service and would come with legal risks.

It was also stated that in 2021 the council agreed through the setting of Long-Term Plan budgets to ensure equitable pay for staff by moving to local government market rates over a three-year period.

Councillor Tim Nelson asked for more information around this decision, including minutes, notes, and details of any votes cast.

“The only in-depth discussion I can recall from my last term on council around market rates was around the chief executive.

“I’ve asked for this information but haven’t received it.”

Deputy Mayor Bex Johnson later accused Nelson of grandstanding by “putting the chief executive on the spot”.

“That information he requested was only this afternoon,” she said.

“I resent that comment,” Nelson responded.

Johnson also asked whether councillors were wanting to “reduce the rates increase or have a go at staff”.

“It is the chief executive’s responsibility to employ staff,” she said.

“It is the council’s role to work in the area of governance.

“If we want to reduce the rates increase further, then it is the chief executive’s role and function to look at operations to see if further reductions can be made.

“This would be through a review of the levels of service, which could have a flow-on effect to personnel, but this needs to be done the appropriate way, and I don’t believe the appropriate way is undermining the value and contribution our council staff make.”

Nelson repeated that he resented Johnson’s accusation.

“I’ll try not to grandstand when I make this comment, just for the benefit of councillor Johnson,” Nelson said.

“In your time, Mayor, has there been a discussion like this in previous councils in the terms you have been on?” he asked Mayor Gary Caffell.

Caffell responded: “Not to this degree, no.”

Nelson continued: “And in that time, has there been a significant increase in staff that you are aware of? I think we know the answer to that.”

Caffell said: “There has been a significant increase in staff, but probably a more significant increase in workload for staff. I think the increase of workload would have increased a lot more than the staff.”

Nelson continued: “So just to clarify, while these points haven’t been raised in the past, there has been a significant increase in staffing, but you’re saying there has been a significant increase in workload for staffing.”

Caffell then said that during the years he has been on council, “the workload on staff would have increased 10 fold over that period of time” – a comment that caused councillor Goodwin to erupt in laughter and clap.

“That’s fantastic,” Goodwin noted, which prompted Caffell to ask him to stop and enquire whether he was grandstanding.

Goodwin then proposed that the council set the 2023-24 Annual Plan budget for personnel cost, including elected members and council contractors, at $14.5 million.

He said this would save ratepayers “nearly $600,000” and would give the staff budget a $1.55m increase from where it sits now.

Council staff said these calculations did not take into account filling vacancies that have put pressure on the organisation, and noted that the budget proposed in the Annual Plan consultation document was what was needed to meet key performance indicators and levels of service, while ensuring an allowance to increase staff salaries to match labour market movements.

As the conversations continued, some council staff shared concerns that the council’s negotiating position needed to be protected and recommended the meeting move into public exclusion.

This was opposed by Goodwin but the motion passed.

Council is due to approve the Annual Plan on June 28, with the average rates increase now expected to be 6.2 per cent. – NZLDR

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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