Sports clubs are the lifeblood of communities throughout New Zealand but differences have threatened one club's very existence, the Sports Tribunal of New Zealand has ruled.
The tribunal recently released findings relating to a "fray" between Rotorua-based Central Rugby League Club and its parent body, Bay of Plenty District Rugby League, spanning almost two years.
The heart of the appeal was the suspension of the club committee in December 2018 was not legally valid, an AGM where a new committee was elected was null and void and the original committee should be reinstated.
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The tribunal ruled to that effect but said it could not just leave the parties with that decision as "the future of the club [would] be threatened by historic tensions".
"It will take a big-hearted and forgiving attitude on both sides to mend the fractured personal relationships," the tribunal concluded.
"For the sake in particular of young people whose lives week by week depend on this club, all parties must put the past behind them and work to the common good."
The clash started when the club committee, elected in December 2017, was approached that month by a former member - Ernie Walker - about entering a team in the league competition.
"The discussion did not go well and since then there have, in effect, been two camps. The first consisting of the committee at that time ... and the second what became the committee of the club ... on June 15, 2019," the tribunal findings said.
Relations between the club and Bay of Plenty District Rugby League soured throughout 2018 and in November 2018 the league called the committee to a meeting relating to "serious concerns over the management of the [club]".
The concerns primarily related to changes to the club's constitution in February 2018 made without league approval.
The committee agreed it would rescind the changes which it took steps to do within two days of the November 2018 meeting.
But just over a week later the league emailed then-president, Kerry Mason, notifying him the current committee members had been suspended, effective immediately.
"The [league] will appoint an administrator of an interim committee to manage the club while a full investigation will take place of the club's activities whilst under your control."
The league had already arranged to change the clubroom locks the following day.
The committee filed an appeal to the Sports Tribunal after an appeal with New Zealand Rugby League to get the committee reinstated was heard and dismissed in February this year.
In April 2019 Greg Steele was appointed club administrator resulting in the tribunal proceedings to be paused. He managed to reverse the constitution changes but was unable to resolve the suspension issue. By June, Steele resigned.
"The overall situation deteriorated again with disputes as to membership and alleged threats and online bullying and intimidation. This culminated in Mr Mason resigning as president on 25 May 2019," the tribunal finding reads.
The league arranged an AGM for mid-June, the validity of which the suspended committee protested.
A new committee was elected at the AGM but the suspended committee maintained they were the club's rightful committee.
After unsuccessful attempts at mediation, the tribunal appeal proceeded. Bay of Plenty District Rugby League filed a cross-appeal. It was heard by Dr James Farmer, Nicholas Davidson and Pippa Hayward on October 16.
In the tribunal findings released last week the tribunal sided with the original committee and found the suspension was "an egregious breach of natural justice", the AGM at which a new committee was elected was unlawful and the committee should be reinstated.
The tribunal suggested the restored committee give a reasonable period for new membership applications to be made and have the receipt and processing of these overseen by a legally qualified person.
Following this, an AGM should be called to elect or re-elect a committee.
"We think the steady hand of someone removed from the recent fray is needed to guide the restored committee or else we can see the prospect of more difficulties rather than the reconciliation which is needed."
The tribunal will supervise the implementation of the decision and said both parties wanted to restore the club to its "former mana".
February 4, 2018: The committee, elected December 2017, votes to make changes to the constitution.
November 9, 2018: Bay of Plenty District Rugby League expressed concerns about the management of the Central Rugby League Committee and proposed a meeting.
November 19, 2019: Meeting held.
November 21, 2018: Committee writes to the league asking to change the constitution back.
December 4, 2018: The league suspends the committee and authorises the clubroom locks be changed.
January 18: Ernie Walker served a trespass notice.
January 19: AGM held by Walker at the clubrooms.
February 15 and 28: NZ Rugby League Appeals Committee holds a hearing and dismisses the appeal of the decision to suspend the board.
March 1: Notice of Appeal filed with the Sports Tribunal by the committee.
April 4: Greg Steel appointed club administrator.
May 19: Steel successfully rescinded constitution changes at a Special General Meeting and gives notice of an AGM on June 4.
May 25: Suspended committee president Kerry Mason resigns.
June 3: Steel resigns.
June 7: League advertises an AGM for October 16 on Facebook.
June 15: AGM held, new committee elected.
July 2: Amended Notice of Appeal filed with the Sports Tribunal
July 9: Counter appeal filed by BOPDRL.
October 16: Sports Tribunal hearing held.
October 29: Decision released.