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Conduct is not a four-letter word

By Don Farmer

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In a quiet moment last week – one of two I managed to snaffle in the course of a busy newspaper production schedule – I picked up the South Wairarapa District Council’s agenda and reports for its first meeting of the new triennium.

That might sound like a desperate measure for a man starved of entertainment but, in reality it allowed me to stumble on a few little gems of enlightenment and as a bonus to enjoy a wry smile or two.

The latter was brought about by reading the Code of Conduct for elected members, not because it was out of left field or anything like that but because it brought back memories of times when conduct was hardly the right word to discuss goings-on in the council chamber.

The code, at least that which councillors are asked to adhere to these days, calls on councillors to “respect the dignity” of each other, council management and the public.

Admirable indeed and nobody can argue that it should be the case but this is politics and as sure as God made little apples there will be times when that rule is broken.

By all accounts the South Wairarapa District Council chambers has been a fairly harmonious place in recent years with no reports of blood on the floor, at least none made public.

It was not always the case, believe me.

Blood on the floor might be taking it a step too far but in the early years of the newly constituted council, which arose through the amalgamation of the Greytown, Featherston and Martinborough borough councils and the Featherston County Council in 1989, things got enormously testy.

The first mayor of the new district, John Garrity, had his work cut out to keep things in check at times due mostly to the combined actions of several councillors who had banded together as a citizens watchdog group.

They included the fiery Greytown councillor Dave McPherson, Dr Cathy Casey and journalist Frank Fyfe.

The trio challenged many decisions and debates were known to get so heated, and even so personal, that meetings were called to a temporary halt to give councillors time to cool down.

Dr Casey was sometimes brought to tears, feeling frustrated with the direction debates were heading and would occasionally leave the room of her own accord.

On one particular occasion a group of protesters including Mr Fyfe who were unhappy with an aspect of council business, surrounded the Martinborough offices of the council while a full meeting was in progress and created a hell of a din.

They not only chanted in unison but banged drums and pot lids in a non-stop effort to disrupt the meeting.

Mr Garrity and his loyal councillors refused to bow to the pressure and battled on through the agenda.

It was all great stuff for the press, but was behaviour which would fall way outside the boundaries of the code of dignity present day councillors sign up to.

One of the tools Mr Garrity, and later his successor John Read, used to override problems which arose in the chamber was humour, and they both used that very well even though there must have been times when both men felt more inclined to banging heads together than joking.

Somewhere along the way things smoothed out, perhaps as a result of the towns settling down to work as one and the district’s third and longest serving mayor Adrienne Staples seemingly had a more seamless entry into the job, although she no doubt had “moments” over her 12-year tenure.

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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