Napier City Council Mayor, Bill Dalton, claimed in an email obtained by Fairfax last week that online criticism of his council, and in particular it’s CEO, Wayne Jack, potentially had the chance of NCC “being the first council to be destroyed by ill-informed social media”.
In the email he said councillors need to support the council’s CEO, who is re-applying for his position which is currently up for renewal.
This call to action has prompted a complaint to the Office of the Auditor General that it gives the impression of bias, or predetermination – something not allowed in local governance – in the council’s CEO selection process.
“Dalton told his councillors the recruitment agency had received a number of applications and he did not want to lose Jack, who he believed might seek higher pay elsewhere.”
“We need to be out in the community telling people about our successes and acknowledging the role Wayne and his rejuvenated team have played in those successes”
“The purpose of this letter is to ask you all to show support to your chief executive. To ask people you know to publicly, through social media and the newspapers, to acknowledge the progress we are making as a council. At this stage the negative team are winning the game,”
Wrote the mayor.
Soon after, NZME’s Hawke’s Bay Today picked up the story, but with one slight change that made a lot of difference in the eyes of many.
The “Criticism” reported on Stuff suddenly became “Bullying” and “Abuse” in its rival’s headlines and stories.
Quantifiable examples of this “criticism”/”abuse” were not given, rather just quotes from councilors, including those on the CEO selection panel, rallying around “their CEO”.
Reading through the numerous news and social media posts each day for the last few years there certainly has been a lot of criticism of recent NCC actions. Many would argue justifiably so.
The overwhelming majority of this criticism has been targeted at erroneous council decisions and ignoring what Napier ratepayers want.
Council’s handling of Napier’s War Memorial Conference Centre refurbishment and Multi-use Sports/Velodrome facility have certainly been sore points for many members of the public.
As the highest ranking representatives of elected and unelected council management, the Mayor and CEO receive the bulk of “air time” and press coverage, so what they say and do undergoes far more scrutiny and receives more criticism when things don’t go as their public sees fit.
For the greatest part, any criticism of a person holding a public position is usually along the lines of “statements/actions unbecoming a leader/elected official”. This is because the public hold their city officials in higher regard, and expect more from them.
“Personal attacks”, targeting individuals’ private lives and families, are few, far between and swiftly and severly dealt with by both moderators and fellow users on local discussion pages.
It is called “social” and not “anti-social” media for a reason.
So who is bullying whom?
With many members of the public feeling ostracised and ignored by central and local governments in recent years, and with social media overtaking mainstream and traditional forms of media for coverage and effect, numerous local groups have been set up on social media sites like Facebook as a way of spreading news and voicing opinions.
While criticism of recent council actions has featured prominently on Napier Facebook pages, there has also been a large amount of criticism of, well, criticism!
Many who have expressed concern over certain matters, or voiced opinions contrary to publicised council stances online or in local papers are often ridiculed as “moaners” or “nay-sayers” and been targets of abuse by council supporters – the likes Napier’s mayor asked city councillors to rally.
Taradale Ward councillor Tania Wright “feared that this kind of behaviour could discourage people from standing for public office.”
Those sentiments eerily mirrored a post Mayor Dalton put on a fellow councillor’s Facebook page recently condemning criticism of the city council, except his statement was worded rather more strongly.
“While residents were entitled to their opinion”, Ahuriri Councillor Larry Dallimore said, “it was unfair that elected representatives were being personally attacked.”
Councillor Dallimore knows what it’s like to be personally attacked on social and mainstream media because, as you may remember, when the now Ahuriri Ward representative was campaigning for a seat at the council table, Mr Dallimore himself was the target or criticism, some might even call it online abuse – From Napier’s Mayor!
In an opinion piece in the Hawke’s Bay Today, Dallimore pointed out
“Statistics New Zealand quite clearly announced the inflation rate up to the end of March (2016) was 0.4 and if you divide that into 4.4 (Napier rates for 2016/17 increased by between 3.6 and 4.4 percent) you get 11 times,” he said. “There’s no argument.”
In response Napier Mayor Bill Dalton was quoted in the daily paper as saying Dallimore’s (mathematically correct) statement that Napier rates were increasing at up to 11 times that of inflation was “absolute hogwash”, saying the figures were “just nonsense” and accused Mr Dallimore of “scaremongering”.
All this occurred while Mr Dallimore, at the time just a member of the rate paying public, was in the middle of campaigning for election, whilst Mayor Dalton was safe in his unopposed mayoral position.
That sounds a fair bit like bullying, doesn’t it?
Local animal welfare group Watchdog! also found themselves on the end of similar tirades in mainstream Hawke’s Bay media when the Ministry of Primary Industry investigations the group had requested into Napier City Council’s pound discovered the facility had four major and two minor non-compliances:
“In a letter to Hawke’s Bay Today this month, Mr Dalton said the council was aware of shortcomings “well before Ms Maxwell decided to make the matter her life” and urged Hawke’s Bay Today to ignore her “pathetic crusade”.”
He even turned on Hawke’s Bay Today itself – the paper that gives council news and his own opinions so much print and online coverage in saying:
“Clearly Hawke’s Bay Today has bugger-all to talk about when they keep going on and on and on about a bloody dog pound.” (Run by the council he leads..)
I’m not making this stuff up!
These are ACTUAL QUOTES from our region’s newspaper!
Some have said these outbursts are just Napier’s mayor “calling a spade a spade”. Many more see it as statements/language unbecoming a leader or elected official.
It could also be seen as going against NCC’s Elected Members’ Code of Conduct:
According to Napier City Council’s code of conduct, statements from councillors should not “make personal criticism of the proper conduct of the council or of other elected members, officers of the council or members of the public”.
When I asked if this EMCC could be seen as “gagging” councillors, The mayor called my question “just nonsense”.
In our current world of “Post- Truth Politics” and “Alternative Facts” all these barbs and insults directed at members of the public by elected officials sound worryingly similar to a tactic called “Gaslighting.”
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation intended to spread doubt in individuals or members of a group. Using persistent denial, misdirection, and contradiction it attempts to destabilize and delegitimize its targets’ or the public’s beliefs.
That sounds disturbingly like the treatment of the Napier Skating Club and its “Sk8 Zone” park last year.
Denying anything was wrong with the city pound, then declaring “the council was aware of shortcomings” before Watchdog! shed more light on issues rings alarm bells of a similar vein.
After all the debate, all the press releases and all the ratepayer money spent on commissioned reports trying to justify the construction of a velodrome virtually no Napier ratepayers wanted or needed, Napier City Council shelved the project this week.
But in a parting shot at deflecting blame for wasted time and ratepayer money Mayor Dalton accused Sport New Zealand of “styming” the project, an emotive Hawke’s Bay Today headline declared.
However, further reading revealed:
“Sport New Zealand’s general manager of community sport Geoff Barry said at no point did his organisation support the project; rather supported them to develop a draft business case.
“We haven’t stymied the process. I think that we’ve been involved in a process and the Napier City Council are reflecting, I think, on the fact that they had an interpretation or perception that we were supporting the project and at no stage have we supported the project in the way that they say we have.”
If the council had been actually listening to its citizens over the two years of business case development they would have rather clearly heard a velodrome was not a project worth pursuing and ratepayers might have been benefitting from a new, Olympic-sized public swimming complex by now.
Exclusion can be another form of bullying and many Napier residents, ratepayers, war veterans and their families have felt excluded over the diabolical handling of Napier’s (now former) War Memorial Conference Centre.
Concerned Napier citizens saw an August public meeting as their first opportunity to discuss concerns over the council’s removal of the Eternal Flame and Roll of Honour from the facility when redevelopments began two years ago.
What they got instead was a presentation of the council’s three preferred new war memorial options, none of which included the returning of the artefacts to the conference centre site – something vociferously supported by the public of Napier, military veterans and relatives of those named on the Roll of Honour plaques.
With little time left at the end for questions from those gathered in attendance, it shut off much opportunity for actual public opinion, debate, or criticism of the council’s handling of the matter.
So it must have come as a surprise to only the convenor, elected council members and management staff when the statement “This community presentation hasn’t happened because of community pressure, but because it is part of council process” was met with laughter.
Many left the “presentation” just as, if not more, disgruntled than when they arrived.
At least concerns over the War Memorial Conference Centre are getting more attention and coverage.
Under previous council regimes dissent got even less recognition.
There were signs that little, if any, criticism, accountability, responsibility or blame would ever be taken within Napier City Council when NCC’s disastrous Art Deco Bus venture was sold off for a pittance of what it had cost the council.
Despite there never being any public demand from them, virtually no one riding on them and the ratepayer-borne cost of not only getting them roadworthy when they arrived, but continual on-going maintenance and overall issues cost the city $1.3 Million the project was only a dud:
“..because we have got one or two extremely vocal critics who are stirring the thing up.”
Yes, it was “the stirrers” fault.
And those who recognised and warned the construction, operational and visitor number issues with Napier’s new Museum, Theatre and Gallery would be bigger, longer lasting and more expensive than the council had led their public to believe were portrayed by the dismissive line: “the whole MTG issue had been blown out of proportion by some people who had expressed their feelings and opinions without “thinking it through”.
Napier’s illuminations once again flickered and there was the smell of LPG in the air…
All this boils down to a lack of trust between the people of Napier and their council.
If ratepayers can’t trust what their elected officials and council management are saying, then doubt and criticism are soon to follow.
Ignoring their public’s needs and requests, whether it be in person, in traditional, or social media; Continued deflection of blame, rather than accepting responsibility and accountability for city decisions that go wrong; and being disrespectful to the citizens of Napier who vote them in, pay their wages and fund council activities all add up very quickly and all undermine the trust a city has in its council.
As Deputy Mayor, Faye White, speaking of her sadness that “the mayor can’t send a confidential email (that began this post) to his councillors” without it being leaked, said:
“When the trust goes … it’s never quite the same.”
Napier deserves better!