'Nasty' reaction prompts councillor to call it quits

Gail Sheriff
Gail Sheriff

Christchurch city councillor Gail Sheriff says harassment over her ratepayer-funded trip to a Californian sandcastle festival has prompted her to quit.

Sheriff, a five-term councillor, was yesterday backed by Mayor Bob Parker, who said the media had portrayed her as "some kind of criminal" after last week's trip to the United States Open Sandcastle Competition near San Diego.

Sheriff said she had no regrets about the trip and would not repay the $3948 cost, describing it as "small change" compared with the publicity her visit to Imperial Beach generated for Christchurch.

She said she threw her nomination form for October's local body elections "in the rubbish bin" on Tuesday after talking to her family about the "nasty, negative stuff" of recent days.

Callers to her home had hung up or made abusive comments and threats that had started to hurt her family.

While elected officials often faced abuse, "it has never been as bad as this time".

"It comes with the territory," she said. "Most times you accept it, but sometimes it gets out of control."

She said councillors should not have their private telephone numbers listed.

Sheriff made the trip to plan for a sand-sculpture event at New Brighton in March and was "more determined than ever that this happens".

She said $4000 was "small change for what this city will get out of this event here".

"For me, [the Christchurch organisers] are onto a real winner," Sheriff said.

Parker said Sheriff should have been applauded for putting her energy into a community event. The abuse directed at her was "incredibly disturbing. Perhaps the media need to look at themselves and think that they are dealing with human beings who have families," he said. "They're dealing with real people in real communities.

"Perhaps the starting point [for stories] should not be that someone has done something stupid or wrong but that it might actually be a good idea worth investigating."

He took issue with abusive comments made on websites, including press.co.nz.

"It's one thing to disagree with an idea but it's another thing to ... be the recipient of some of the personal abuse that then comes through these columns," Parker said.

He said he had been threatened and intimidated, but councillors still needed to be accessible.

Sheriff said it was the first time she had used ratepayer money for any trip in her 15 years on the council.

Her presence at the event attracted huge media interest, with appearances on local television stations and Fox News. The Discovery Channel planned to send a film crew to next year's Christchurch competition, which was "a huge coup" for the city.

Sheriff was made an honorary judge at the Imperial Beach event and was invited to present awards.

SERVICE

Gail Sheriff is a five-term city councillor. She has served on several committees and chaired resource consent hearings and the council's audit and risk committee.

A director of Orion Group, she was a director of Christchurch International Airport for seven years.

She is a justice of the peace.

Sheriff received $52,400 in fees last year, on top of her $83,000 councillor salary.

The Press