A former Australian Liberal Party candidate, who now works as the general manager of a council in the Riverina area of New South Wales, is under fire after making allegedly racist remarks to a Māori contract worker.
Bayard Tokohihi Heke made a formal complaint to the Balranald Council in March, claiming Michael Kitzelmann had called him a gorilla, multiple times, in front of other people during a meeting last year.
"The meeting was about putting an emblem or figure in the concrete, like the frog shapes that had been put in the concrete pavement along the shopping centre," his statement read.
"One woman suggested a frog shape, and another suggested handprints and asked me if it would be OK. I said it didn't matter to me.
"Michael Kitzelmann, the general manager, said, 'None of that, we'll have Tooks' gorilla head imprinted in the concrete.'"
Heke alleged Kitzelmann had made the comment twice more after others had suggested something else to print in the concrete, leaving him feeling "hurt, offended, angry and upset".
Kitzelmann has strenuously denied claims of racism, labelling them "untrue, vile and vexatious".
"It was a jocular exchange between myself and another council staff member and was not directed at Heke," Kitzelmann said.
The GM responded at the time with an apology letter, in which he spelled Heke's name wrong.
"Please be assured that at no time during this interaction was there any intent to cause insult or upset towards yourself or any other person in attendance," he wrote.
"The intent of the banter was to create a jovial environment where everyone enjoyed the work they were doing."
In a statement to NCA NewsWire, Kitzelmann has since claimed "four of the six people present at the time confirm no offence was intended or taken by anyone present".
Kitzelmann urged Heke to take action through the Anti-Discrimination Commission or another independent body "so that a full and independent inquiry can be held to determine the true facts in this matter".
Heke, 48, told NCA NewsWire he felt disgusted and angry when Kitzelmann made the initial comments, and claimed nobody else present for the conversation laughed.
When he received the letter from the general manager, he said he was even angrier.
"He acknowledged the fact he'd made the comments, and just brushed it off as banter and a joke … I'm at a loss to believe he's sincere about his apology."
Heke is a father-of-nine from the Gold Coast who was contracted to work with an engineer tasked with renovating the courtyard of the council.
He said he enjoyed his time in Balranald, apart from the incident with Kitzelmann.
"There is nothing wrong with the town and the community, the town is beautiful, I met some great people, I made some lifelong friends," he said.
Kitzelmann's alleged comments were not new to Heke, who believes racism will always be an issue, but the councilman should have known better, he said.
"I have no doubt this is going to be an issue into the future, but these comments and remarks, which need to go away … [for them] to come from somebody in a position like Michael … somebody of his position should have more respect for the general community," Heke said.
"I don't condone people making comments of those kinds to anybody, regardless of whether you know them or you don't, no matter what their cultural background or heritage."
After receiving Kitzelmann's apology letter, Heke's solicitor, Peter Jess, contacted the council to ask what action was being taken and was told the matter had been "resolved".
"This guy is the head of one of the largest councils in NSW," Jess said.
"He's the general manager. It's incomprehensible that he can still hold that position, and the fact he was then referred to the administrator, who is a government appointee … [for them] to confirm they were going to take no action on that behaviour means whatever government policy there is on racism is being endorsed by his behaviour and sanctioned by the government, which is just outrageous.
Jess contacted NSW Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock to request more information, and Hancock committed to conducting her own investigation into the allegations.
The local state MP — the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party's Helen Dalton — has also become involved in the saga, writing to the minister to request the GM be stood down.
She said if no action was taken, she would take the case to the Human Rights Commissioner.
The solicitor likened the comments made by Kitzelmann to those made against AFL legend Adam Goodes by Eddie McGuire.
"To categorise people of colour as subhumans is the most significant denigration you can have in our society. We should have zero tolerance to this," he said.
"The behaviour is simply not acceptable, even worse if you're the appointee of the government."