It was a victory all right, but it left a sour taste

GORDON BROWN
Last updated 07:53 15/02/2013

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OPINION: 'I'm going to have a choccie biscuit and go home".

They were the final words of code of conduct transgressor, councillor Sherril George, as she left the debating chamber after an hour- long meeting decided she was guilty of breaching the code.

She was not surprised, nor was anyone else. As she left, happily munching away on her biccie, it was symbolically reminiscent of the condemned person being allowed a last meal of their choice before execution.

For much of the last hour she'd sat in the public gallery, pretty much alone apart from council candidate Murray Chong, listening to most of her colleagues giving her a good old-fashioned telling off. If there was any squirming from discomfort, she didn't show it.

Wednesday's meeting was a council meeting with just the one topic, the council equivalent of a court-martial - a council martial? The monitoring committee had previously recommended that she be found guilty, reprimanded and stripped of what remaining council responsibilities she had. That meant removing her as a member of the policy committee, the disabilities issues working party, the mayor's task force for jobs and the Clifton community board.

It's not as though she had that much left. After her previous council-martial in 2011, when she was critical of a new Cambodian food business opening in Waitara, she was then stripped of a few responsibilities and removed from the police liaison working party, the funding subcommittee, the hearings commission and the TRC Taranaki solid waste management committee. As John F Kennedy would probably say, "ask not what you can do for your council, but ask what your council can do to you", or something like that.

Anyway, on Wednesday, the full council, sans Crs Andrew Judd and Pauline Lockett, who put in apologies, endorsed the recommendations in total. That means Cr George can still attend meetings, but, apart from council meetings, would not be able to vote at any of the others, even though she could be allowed to speak, at the chairman or chairwoman's discretion.

Before the meeting Cr George, affectionately known as Sledgehammer, or Sledge in this column for some years, was blase and resigned to her fate. She openly said the outcome mattered little to her and she confirmed that after the meeting by handing out a pre-written press release to the media (all four of us, such was the interest) giving her reaction.

It was a classic of its kind. "It is rather disturbing and sad that asking questions and expecting honest answers ends in another code of conduct against me. I firmly believe we have the right to probe; something that the majority of this council does not do."

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Having dispensed with the pleasantries she got into her stride.

"Given the amount of hypocrisy, double standards and incomplete information we are often subjected to, it is no surprise that those on the monitoring committee and others who supported the farcical charge have relished the opportunity to verbally abuse and bully me, with no recourse.

"It shows that the concerns I have made about unhealthy behaviours are well and truly supported, from the top down."

There were few signs of reformed behaviour there. Rather it was more of the same, with about three more breaches against the code of conduct in her statement. If anyone was counting.

It's fair to say the council would not have the stomach, nor the desire, to pursue the matter any further. No-one was getting any enjoyment from the proceedings, that much was made clear. That included the ratepayers, who once again had to fork out for a legal opinion on the matter.

Susan Hughes, QC may not be as expensive as the acknowledged legal experts on local government matters, Wellington-based Simpson Grierson, who socked us for something close to $60,000 in the Cr Horse McLeod code of conduct case.

The formidable Ms Hughes didn't have to travel from Wellington to give her view, she was already here, but the thought of a cheap QC is as far-fetched as the council staff recommending charging an entry fee for the Govett Brewster Art Gallery.

Ms Hughes advised the mayor that legally, Cr Sledge was as guilty as sin, although she took a few hundred more words to say the same thing in a far more restrained manner.

The meeting was not without its drama. Cr Horse and Mayor Harry had a few early testy exchanges, a few more in the middle of the meeting, and a few more near the end. The mayor remained resolute.

Cr Shaun Biesiek tried to save Sledge's portfolios, and asked for a reprimand only, but that plan had as much chance of success as spotting a Michael Smither dolphin mural in the city.

Ultimately, it was the collective will of the councillors that carried the day. Perhaps the stand-out speech which echoed the sentiments of most councillors came from Cr Lynn Bublitz, aka Great Uncle Bulgaria. He really turned on the oratory as he pointed out a few home truths. "The code of conduct has nothing to do with stopping debate or putting views forward."

Almost all agreed, with some pointing out the erring letter to the Taranaki Daily News was more about Cr George getting herself another headline, rather than adding anything to the debate. After sentence was passed it was all over, but there was little to enthuse about. Everyone present knew what it must have been like to pay big money to watch Sonny Bill's latest fight.

Victory, yes, but it still left a sour taste in the mouth.

- Taranaki Daily News

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