Hawke's Bay regional Council may investigate blog post

By Simon Hendery

12 comments
Blog Post: Cr Tom Belford, Complaint: Cr Christine Scott, Chairman: Cr Fenton Wilson. Photo / Duncan Brown
Blog Post: Cr Tom Belford, Complaint: Cr Christine Scott, Chairman: Cr Fenton Wilson. Photo / Duncan Brown

Hawke's Bay regional councillor Tom Belford is facing a formal council investigation after he claimed fellow councillors and senior council staff wanted the Ruataniwha dam built "at any cost".

Mr Belford's comment, in a blog post on his BayBuzz website, prompted a complaint from council deputy chairwoman Christine Scott that he had breached the organisation's code of conduct.

Mrs Scott says the post was offensive and misleading but Mr Belford is refusing to back away from the claim or apologise.

Regional Council chairman Fenton Wilson has determined there "may be a case to answer" and is asking the council to approve a process for dealing with the complaint.

If the council finds Mr Belford's post did breach the code of conduct he could be censured but because of his junior status around the council table, it does not have the power to impose any punishment other than a formal telling-off.

Mrs Scott's complaint stems from a May 20, post where Mr Belford said she, Mr Wilson, three other councillors, senior council managers and the council's investment company had all "worked mightily" to undermine what was at the time a draft decision from the board of inquiry (BOI) into the Ruataniwha dam proposal.

Mr Belford said the group "fear[ed] the strong environmental protections required by the BOI will quash the dam, whose prime purpose is to promote intensified farming".

In her complaint to the chairman, Mrs Scott said the claims in the post were untrue, offensive and derogatory. Mr Belford had breached the council's code of conduct which requires councillors to be respectful of each other and of staff.

"At no time have I not acted to achieve good environmental outcomes," she said.

Mr Belford responded that he was entitled to his opinion and "neither owe nor offer anyone an apology for it".

"While councillor Scott may of course exercise her right to disagree with my opinion and challenge it as 'not true', it is not ungrounded [many reasonable observers share my interpretation] ... and it is certainly not disrespectful or derogatory to any individual," he told Mr Wilson.

He said Mrs Scott was able to use the comments' facility of the BayBuzz website to respond to his post. "I suggest you encourage her to use that forum."

The complaint will be discussed by councillors when they meet for their monthly full council meeting on Wednesday.

Mr Wilson said the issue had highlighted the fact that the council did not have a formal, documented procedure for dealing with such complaints. Wednesday's meeting will be asked to vote on a proposed procedure, including having the matter independently investigated by a disputes resolution advisor from Local Government New Zealand.

The advisor's investigation would then be referred back to the council.

Under its code of conduct, if the council finds a councillor has breached the code they can be censured, removed from council committees or other representative bodies, or stripped of their roles as chairs or deputy chairs of committees. Mr Belford, a first-term councillor, does not hold any committee chair or deputy roles on the council.

WAR OF WORDS

An extract from Tom Belford's May 20 blog post that prompted the complaint:

"Four Regional Councillors - Barker, Beaven, Belford and Graham - heartily endorse the BOI decision. We believe farmers and growers can meet its requirements and prosper, and that HBRC and our regional ag sector should start working toward that end.

"However, five Regional Councillors (Dick, Hewitt, Pipe, Scott and Wilson), the council's investment company (HBRIC), and senior managers have a different priority. They want a dam at any cost. And they fear the strong environmental protections required by the BOI will quash the dam, whose prime purpose is to promote intensified farming."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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