Otago Daily Times

Van­dervis his own worst en­emy

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WHAT is to be done about Dunedin City coun­cil­lor Lee Van­dervis and his out­bursts?

No doubt, Cr Van­dervis main­tains lit­tle needs to change. It is he who asks the hard ques­tions, some­times in a ro­bust man­ner. It is he who is sub­ject to “kan­ga­roo” courts and un­fair crit­i­cism.

There should be no doubt, as well, that he is clever and per­sis­tent, valu­able qual­i­ties in a coun­cil­lor.

It is healthy, even es­sen­tial, for coun­cils to in­clude rebels out­side the power struc­ture and pre­vail­ing dom­i­nant views. They play a vi­tal role ques­tion­ing and chal­leng­ing.

But Cr Van­dervis’ style, man­ner and ac­tions have re­peat­edly gone well be­yond the ac­cept­able. He has been rude, ob­nox­ious and threat­en­ing to coun­cil em­ploy­ees from the chief ex­ec­u­tive to park­ing and counter staff. In the lat­est in­ci­dent, he con­fronted deputy mayor Chris­tine Garey af­ter a meet­ing at which she ruled against him on a point of or­der.

Cr Garey has said it felt as if Cr Van­dervis was go­ing to hit her he seemed so out of con­trol. The in­ci­dent be­gan with shout­ing and Cr Van­dervis was yelling by the end of it.

The coun­cil’s “in­de­pen­dent” in­ves­ti­ga­tor notes that Cr Steve Walker stepped in to pro­tect the deputy mayor.

Three coun­cil­lors made for­mal com­plaints. Cr Van­dervis is­sued an apol­ogy for “loud­ness” and has said he did not in­tend to make a scene and should not have let it es­ca­late.

In a brief state­ment, he also said: “Call­ing out peo­ple who are not do­ing their job, in­clud­ing the ODT . . . is the long­ev­i­dent pat­tern of my be­hav­iour in the pub­lic in­ter­est.”

In 2012, the coun­cil be­gan keep­ing a file on Cr Van­dervis. When re­leased this year, it de­tailed 27 in­ci­dents, in­clud­ing al­leged stand­ing over, bul­ly­ing, im­ply­ing in­com­pe­tence and cor­rup­tion, shout­ing at, ber­at­ing, in­tim­i­dat­ing, den­i­grat­ing and swear­ing at coun­cil staff.

For part of 2011, coun­cil staff were un­der in­struc­tions not to speak to him af­ter he gave or­ders to some staff and de­scribed others as ‘‘dogs’’ in a se­ries of an­gry emails. In De­cem­ber of that year, coun­cil­lors voted 13­0 to is­sue Cr Van­dervis a writ­ten cen­sure.

In early 2015, he was sus­pended from all coun­cil com­mit­tees for two months.

To­day, coun­cil­lors are to de­cide whether Cr Van­dervis breached the coun­cil’s code of con­duct. Sus­pen­sion from com­mit­tees or be­ing “in­vited” to re­sign are pos­si­ble out­comes.

He can­not be sacked, which is proper be­cause he is elected by city res­i­dents. It would be all too easy for coun­cil­lors to gang up on a dis­liked or in­con­ve­nient mem­ber.

But, as has been re­marked, the penal­ties ap­pear to be just a slap on the wrist. Pre­vi­ous cen­sures have had lit­tle or no ef­fect.

If Cr Van­dervis was an em­ployee of the coun­cil it­self, he would have faced for­mal dis­ci­plinary meet­ings, re­ceived warn­ings and — given his re­peat of­fend­ing — could well have been dis­missed.

Al­though Cr Garey is hardly the type to be eas­ily in­tim­i­dated, she said she was shocked the in­ci­dent hap­pened at her work­place and she was shaken. Coun­cil­lors, as well as coun­cil staff, have every right to be treated with ba­sic cour­tesy and re­spect. They should feel “safe” at work.

There were no clear suc­ces­sors when mayor Dave Cull stood down be­fore the last elec­tion. This was Cr Van­dervis’ op­por­tu­nity fi­nally to win the top po­si­tion. But his volatile man­ner and rep­u­ta­tion have alien­ated too many vot­ers, no mat­ter how strong his core sup­port.

If Cr Van­dervis is, as ex­pected, found “in breach”, coun­cil­lors need to ap­ply the harsh­est pos­si­ble sanc­tions, per­haps merely the sus­pen­sion from com­mit­tees again.

Per­haps, as well, Cr Van­dervis’ sup­port­ers — who ap­pre­ci­ate his role ques­tion­ing coun­cil spend­ing and for the likes of de­fend­ing the rights of city mo­torists — could en­cour­age him to re­frain from fur­ther out­bursts.

But would Cr Van­dervis be able to change? Could he stop be­ing his own worst en­emy?

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