An angry councillor's newspaper column sparked an investigation that lasted eight months, cost $20,000 and seems to have achieved ... very little. David Fisher reports from small-town New Zealand on the sometimes unbelievable war of words between a former Mr Gay NZ and the council managers he offended.
It was the C-bomb that did it.
When freshly minted Far North councillor Dave Hookway exercised his new-found elected power through a newspaper column, the C-word was perhaps better left unsaid.
But what is caution when democracy calls? Hookway had stood for council on a platform of change, revolution and transparency!
What follows is a cautionary tale in democracy. It is a peek behind the ratepayer-funded facades which house council staff. It is a look inside the machinations of elected councillors.
This weekend, our triennial local body elections will produce the people's representatives to council.
• Inquiry after council boss' alleged reference to councillor as 'homosexual'
• Councillor Dave Hookway joins Far North mayoralty race
• Carter makes bid for third term as Far North Mayor
• Outspoken Far North councillor disputes 'biased' attendance report
Hookway may or may not be back. After three frustrating years as councillor, Hookway is standing for mayor this time around.
Variously called "Bear" and, less often but actually, "Big Sexy", Hookway didn't manage to bring change to the Far North sitting around the council table.
So, under the slogan "Bear for Mayor", he's aiming to tip incumbent John Carter out and sit at the head of the table where, he believes, things will be different.
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Could it be worse than the debacle set in train by the C-bomb, unleashed in the Northland Age on August 22 2017?
It was then Hookway, in a regular column, wrote of ratepayers "scared of retribution" from the council, of "poor communication" and "obstructive behaviour".
"If even half of the complaints I have received from the public are true, this must be taken seriously."
There was even, he wrote, "the occasional whisper of possible corruption".
Corruption. There it was in all its ugliness. If there was a word to make council staff sit up straight, the C-bomb would do it.
It was taken very seriously, although not exactly as Hookway had intended.
Crossing a line
The column was first spotted by the council's PR manager. As he told the inquiry which followed, the communications' team scours the Northland Age because "we have a number of what I call trenchant council critics who are constantly writing to the paper about various things".
He turned the page to Hookway's column. "Well," he thought, "this is really crossing a line."
"So I thought, 'straight away we've got someone - an elected member - publicly criticising staff and not raising issues directly with the chief executive, which is the proper process for doing that'."
And there were the references to the Serious Fraud Office inquiry at the council a few years back. And complaints about service. And the C-bomb.
"So he didn't explicitly say: the staff are corrupt, or the staff are incompetent. To me, it was like those join-the-dot pictures that you have in children's puzzle books. You can see the outline but you're just leaving the reader to fill in the rest with their imagination."
The PR manager copied the column to other senior managers and "most of my colleagues ... were similarly concerned".
One of those who received a copy of the column sat at home, mulling it over and texting colleagues.
"So I was really pissed off and concerned," Manager One later told the formal investigation into Hookway's column writing. It's a small town and close community, so pseudonyms serve better than names. Those council staff interview for the inquiry will be known as Manager One, Manager Two and PR Manager.
"I'm very concerned about my reputation," Manager One told a similarly aggrieved colleague. "I am going to call the senior leadership team together first thing tomorrow morning to discuss how everyone is feeling about it."
Not good, was the answer. The council managers resolved to make a stand. By mid-morning, six had pulled together a formal complaint, with the assistance of council lawyer George Swanepoel.
The correspondence is a compilation of anger and frustration. All six contributed to the former complaint letter, sent to chief executive Shaun Clarke, who took it to the mayor.
On the face of it, Hookway was beyond the council's control. A rebel and a rogue, something must be done.
So the council spent about $20,000 on an investigation that, in the end, consumed eight months of life and didn't really get anywhere.
For the council staff, life had become intolerable. What to do? They couldn't respond to the Northland Age.
The PR Manager recalled meeting Mayor John Carter, who was first elected in 2013. "I don't want to run the council through the letters page of the paper," he recalled Carter saying.
"It kinda confirmed a practice we have of just not responding to those things in the paper because all you're doing is just fuelling more people to write," he told the investigation.
"We don't respond to individuals because all that does is it encourages them to write another letter and another letter and we've got a lot of armchair critics who will always want to have the last word."
But here was a councillor on a "crusade", a "campaign", with a "pattern of behaviour", he said.
And it came out of the blue, he said. "The editor of the paper doesn't send us columns. The only exception is the mayor's column, which we write ourselves so we know what's going to appear. So, no, we got no forewarning of that."
What to do? "I can't phone the editor and say: 'We want you to drop this column.' That would be inappropriate.
"But the mayor can exert a bit of pressure and he's told me that the editor has decided he's going to rotate the column around all the councillors." Northland Age editor Peter Jackson says he recalls Carter grumbling about Hookway's column, which lapsed after a submission was rejected for legal reasons.
In the midst of it though, the PR Manager found it uncontrollable. It wasn't just the Northern Age, he said. Hookway posted the column to 12 community Facebook pages. It was shared by 12 people.
And the impact? While used to working in "a political environment", the PR Manager said: "I would be lying if I said I haven't sort of suffered some mental anguish about this."
There was a low point. One of the "trenchant critics" had jumped on Facebook and called the councillors "wannabe Hitlers". The PR Manager went to the Facebook administrator, saying: "You're not supposed to allow people to make those sorts of comments."
It was gratuitous, nasty, mudslinging, he said. "I actually said: 'You may not be aware of this but if you allow people to post defamatory comments, you can be liable yourself'."
The Facebook admin banned the "Hitler" commenter then "kinda started deleting people's comments".
"We put them in a bit of a panic," he mused.
Visitors to the page asked why their comments were disappearing, and were accurately told by the admins "the council's communications manager has told us that we could be liable for legal action".
The PR Manager: "So, of course that started up that started up a whole new round of 'the council's trying to censor us' ... 'this is heavy-handed tactics', and even Hookway referred to it in a later column ... so that was another arrow aimed at us."
As social media threatened to spin beyond control, the PR Manager figured the best approach was to go online and inject some sense into the Facebook debate.
"I thought I was dealing with reasonable people and they'd understand." This was not what he found. "It was kind of like a pack attack and the comments were along the lines of: 'who the hell do you think you are? You work for us. You're our servant. It's time to make you famous'."
It was a horrid weekend, he said. Stressful. He considered whether he wanted to stay in his job, and even in the district after seeing the "ugly" side of the community.
"It's really unpleasant the way that people behave on social media. That the things they say on social media they would never say to your face. So, for me, that was a low point on all of this."
And still, there's Hookway and his "coordinated campaign" against the council leadership, he said. Those newspaper columns posted to Facebook? The comments people made on the Facebook page? Hookway endorsed them!
The PR Manager handed over to the investigator print outs, showing comments alleging corruption at the council and urging sackings.
"And he's 'liked' them," said the PR manager, pointing to the ticks under the comments.
The investigator replied: "Tell me what 'liked' means."
When Hookway stood for council, he was anything but the traditional candidate. A former Mr Gay NZ, there's tattoos and a mohawk and piercings which all mark Hookway as an atypical councillor in provincial New Zealand.
His platform was change and his columns offered reasons to reject the status quo.
"If knowledge is power," he wrote on August 8 2017, "it is not something liberally afforded to councillors. Reports are foisted on us at the last minute and you generally get the feeling that the tail is wagging the dog."
Two years later, the Office of the Ombudsman produced a report into transparency at the Far North council which echoed many of Hookway's sentiments.
In researching the report, it considered the council's newly introduced reputation survey. "The result shows the council has significant work to do to build trust with its community."
"I think the council can do more to improve how it is perceived by the public," wrote the Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier. "The concepts of transparency and accountability need to be incorporated into the council's strategic documents and become part of the language the council uses."
Staff understood the need for transparency, said Boshier. Senior leadership, though, showed "a lack of visible engagement" with the council's transparency obligations.
In fact, the higher up the chain of command, the worse it got. A staggering number of council staff had no idea where the mayor (73 per cent) or councillors (78 per cent) stood on obeying the laws which guaranteed ratepayers access to information.
"Of course we obey the law," says Carter, "but I don't get involved in legal matters. I don't go rushing around to the grader driver and say 'I follow the LGOIMA (Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act)."
The information sought for this story took 18 months to compile through freedom of information legislation. The council balked at some things, delayed on others, and were just plain wrong in some cases. The timing of this story - in election season - is due to council delays.
The overall tone of the Ombudsman's report was dismal. Boshier found nice things to say, but largely the nice things were about intent not execution. For example, it was good the council had done a reputation survey but not so good the survey found the council didn't have much of a reputation. Carter prefers to see it differently, but only 33 per cent of the district signalled they were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the council.
Which was Hookway's point when he ran for council. He didn't exactly say "drain the swamp", but - like "the dot pictures that you have in children's puzzle books" - you could see where he was going.
Of course, people look at those dots and, sometimes, it becomes a Rorschach test - one of this mind-probing inkblot exams.
And council staff didn't like the picture Hookway was painting.
Life in the F'n DC
See this name badge, Manager One asked the investigator. It carries the council name and emblem - Far North District Council. FNDC. Some locals call it F'n DC.
"I walk around in Kerikeri with this on. Since that article ... I try and hide the fact that I work at the council."
And it's everywhere, she said. "Where I get my haircut, one of the hairdressers there is partners of [Hookway's] very good friend who is also vocal about how crap we are ...
"The other day I was in the hairdressers and some woman was going off about how crap the council are and have you read that article and, you know, he's going to stir them all up."
And so she sat there and thought, bite your tongue. "I've been pretty close to replying knowing that I would lose my job but it's not just my job I'd lose, it's my future, so I've not done that."
And it wasn't just once. Hookway's column was every week for a while. "It's just a hammering." And, spurred on, ratepayers "constantly" request salary information about staff, job descriptions. There's doubt being planted in people's minds, she said, and "we don't seem to be able to respond".
The emotional and mental toll compounded, she said. "Interview my [partner], interview other people's partners, because that's when you'll get the real impact of the toll that this councillor is having on us."
It was the size of the community which made it personal. It's not a big city, where you are anonymous.
"We live here, we work here, we bring our kids up here and it's just horrible, horrible, to have to take my [name] tag off to walk down the street.
"I take it off the minute I leave work and I take it off if I walk down the road to get a coffee."
The investigator was told by Manager Two how the complaint from the senior leadership team reflected the impact Hookway was having on all 350 council staff.
"Integrity is something we pride ourselves on in terms of values. So when an elected member chooses to suggest that council staff are either not doing their job or doing something they shouldn't be doing ... and does that in a very public way without discussing that with the people concerned, I think that undermines integrity in a very big way and a very direct way.
"We work for a public organisation. We know that, and everything we do is out there in the public domain. So we are to serve and we hold onto those values yet statements such as those made by the councillor were the antithesis of what we stand for."
Oh I don't use Facebook but my partner does, he said. "I get home and [my partner would] say to me, 'have you seen the latest Dave Hookway', and I'd say, 'I think I have'. This is the same stuff. So it's followed me home."
There were questions at home, questions at work. You're out in a social setting and there's chatter: "Oh, what's going on at the council?" And having to explain yourself, again and again, when it's "innuendo" and "insinuation".
And the dog walkers! The council has made an unbelievable hash of dog-related issues in the Far North, with blunders over expired bylaws, erratic handling of seized animals and a budget blowout on building shelters.
"There are people who regularly walk their dog by where I live. There's a walkway alongside. I was spraying weeds so these people stopped and the first thing they said to me after this whole saga was ... 'we're not very happy with the council'."
In their minds, Hookway "was doing a great job", so he disagreed and explained "there's another side to this coin".
"Here we are having to explain ourselves and defend that which I think is grossly unfair."
Hookway is so "adversarial", said Manager Two. It is as if he's saying: "I'm in their camp and you guys are all wrong."
The manager grumbled over the way Hookway quizzed council staff, as if they don't know their jobs. Then there was that time he drove two ratepayers in dispute with the council to a meeting with the Mayor and staff and Hookway was "behaving in a way where he was advocating on their behalf".
Hookway has an agenda, Manager Two claimed, and even a plan. He wants to be mayor. He claims to be doing it for constituents but, really, he said, what's to be achieved if he persists? "He's certainly not doing anything for the staff."
The community being the size it is means you see elected councillors and community board members frequently. You say hello, ask after their wellbeing.
"I would not go out of my way to say hello to councillor Hookway on the weekend, If I saw him in a supermarket or anywhere else, I would avoid him."
To be honest, says the PR Manager, some of these issues existed before Hookway was elected.
"People just don't like councils. Basically, we send them a bill four times a year.
"I think what this has done, though, it's just made it harder for us to get our staff to feel they can say 'I work for the council, I'm proud'."
So, that's why there was a Code of Conduct complaint on August 23 2017. Under pressure, senior managers need a circuit breaker. They wanted a reset button. They wanted a fresh start.
The PR Manager: "It would have to be ... just a very simple agreement around he's not gonna publicly criticise members of the staff, he's not going to incite the public."
Also, "a willingness to actually support us". "We've got some great stories that could he could be sharing ... he might go back to writing a ... less inflammatory column.
The investigation into Hookway was carried out by Paul Diver Associates, an employment specialist in Auckland.
It always sticks in the craw for locals when they see their rates walk out of the district, although council's publicity machine hasn't provided much information about the Code of Conduct complaint to ratepayers.
The investigation was completed by December 13 2017 and was a significant chunk of the $20,000 cost associated with the complaint against Hookway. It recorded how the C-bomb column was identified by the PR Manager, then sent to the senior leadership team who then collectively complained.
In carrying out the investigation, Hookway was measured against the values which underpinned council's Code of Conduct. The code spells out principles councillors pledge to uphold and governs matters such as dealings with staff and interactions with media.
On most counts, Hookway was found to have acted against the values of the council, including a compulsion that councillors "foster community confidence and trust". The C-bomb column didn't do this, because it "disparages the council".
Hookway was also criticised for not raising complaints about staff through the chief executive, for raising the "historical" SFO investigation, open criticism of the council outside his personal capacity and so on.
There was not enough evidence Hookway's behaviour had compromised the integrity of staff, it found, although there was potential for it to do so. The investigation found Hookway had certainly had a personal impact on staff.
The investigation report did not find Hookway's breach to be serious. As far as it went, the investigator ruled "it had the potential to be serious".
Found guilty, council rules allow for sentencing through an Independent Assessment Panel, which considers the investigation report and passes judgment.
Three people were appointed to the role, including and led by John Law, former Mayor of Rodney. Carter was the appointed council point of contact with Law, although the council says it can't access information showing how often, or to what degree, he maintained contact with Law during the process.
Hookway, who didn't meet with the investigator, did meet with Law and the other panel members.
"It is abundantly clear," Law wrote, "that Councillor Hookway is extremely frustrated by the amount and quality of the information, and at times the lack of such information, that has been provided from staff members as well as the time it takes him to get this information."
Law wrote that the highly critical columns cost Hookway the support of other councillors and senior staff, which could have made him a less effective representative. Having said that, he added that Hookway's tone wouldn't be as combative if he wasn't so frustrated with council.
But what to do, asked Law. The panel's answer: Sort out your Code of Conduct process, because it really shouldn't take eight months.
As far as Hookway goes, there wasn't actually anything that could be done. There were no actual penalties that would have "a meaningful effect".
Instead, the panel recommended, Hookway, Carter and Clarke sit in a room together with Law and talk about how to fix it.
And so it was resolved - grown ups would have a grown up conversation and normal service would resume.
Except, it didn't really end like that. It won't end until next Saturday, when the votes are counted.
The race for Mayor
Who will be mayor? Will it be Hookway or will it be Carter?
Hookway is campaigning on change and Carter, broadly, is standing on giving voters more of the same.
Hookway is promising to devolve decision-making to communities, to have greater transparency and to bring in changes to allow the council to better reflect those who live in the Far North. Carter is the status quo, standing on a record of two terms, good financial management and - almost unbelievably - the nuggets of positivity to be found in the Chief Ombudsman's report on transparency.
Neither were too keen on colouring election season with talk about the scrap that divided the council and staff for a significant portion of the past three years.
Carter, who has spent nearly four decades in elected office, says this is what happens with "you get a person who doesn't want to work with a team".
"I'm not a politician," says Hookway.
Law, who headed the panel which passed sentence on Hookway, will be recommending to the new council it change its Code of Conduct policy from one which is rules-based to one which is aspirational.
The rules-based approach took too long and achieved little other than cost to the ratepayer.
Also, the concept of having someone elected being shackled by rules - rather than guides for behaviour - had the feel of impeding democratic freedoms.
Law: "When I look at complaints like this, usually commonsense prevails."
Veteran former Waitakere mayor and political advisor Sir Bob Harvey says councils with rifts struggle to function. "You need an honest working relationship. If they break down, everything collapses.
"That comes to leadership. If leadership fails, the council fails."
Tell me about this councillor, asks Harvey, and gets words like "iconoclast", "mohawked and pierced", outspoken, combative.
"So, you've got a maverick. He's a real firebrand. The thing is, you can't ignore him. You've got to like him. He's not going to go anywhere. You have to become a friend."
Mavericks disrupt the narrative, force closer consideration of issues, require better arguments to be made. Isolate them and they run amok. Bring them in, and whatever is putting the fire in their belly can add fuel to the whole council.
"You make it work because you have to make it work."
There's 11 candidates in the running for Mayor of the Far North. Whoever wins will have the task of corralling the 90-odd people vying for councillor and community board spots.
Local Government NZ's chief executive Malcolm Alexander urges those coming in as new councillors to attend its training courses. "Governance is a skill. It's different from management."
LGNZ also works to help councils understand they work best when all work together.
"If you're convinced of a point of view on a particular thing but unlikely to convince colleagues, then you are unlikely to carry the day."
It's compromise and dialogue, he says. "Everyone is there on the ratepayer coin to deliver an outcome for the community."
In his view, Alexander wants Code of Conduct penalties made tougher. The sanctions, he says, "are arguably not as strong as they could be".
The ultimate penalty lies with the public.
"That's the system. That's where you hold people accountable. It is a KPI - (councillors know) 'if I don't perform, the voters have the remedy in their own hands at the ballot box'."