Rotorua Lakes councillor Peter Bentley on his shock resignation

“A final act of frustration.”

That’s how Rotorua district councillor Peter Bentley describes his resignation during a firey council meeting yesterday.

Bentley told Local Democracy Reporting he drafted his resignation statement six months ago, but the actions of Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick at the beginning of the meeting were the final straw.

Bentley, who has served on the council since 2013, said when Chadwick said she wanted to discuss the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill in secret, he decided it was time to quit.

Bentley said Chadwick wanted to “debate” the bill, but she has responded that was not her intention and she raised it for discussion.

Bentley said, in his opinion, “[Chadwick] is an autocrat and democracy comes second”.

Speaking about the move to have what he described as a debate on the bill in secret, Bentley said: “She decreed. It wasn’t up for discussion. I don’t think that’s how you run a democratic system.”

He believed the only topics that should be debated in secret were the likes of contracts with commercial sensitivity.

“This sort of thing is the very thing councillors are elected for, to make a decision on big issues, and the public has a right to know what each councillor thinks.”

He believed Chadwick should issue an apology to the public for her behaviour in the meeting,

He said his statement was written six months ago but he had not wanted to quit at that time and cause a costly byelection.

“That’s not what Rotorua deserves.”

In the council meeting, Bentley said he would “not be one to merely follow in [what he viewed as Chadwick’s] radical and blatant racist ideas”.

He had written a further statement, which he did not read, in which he wrote that he could no longer be part of a council that had, in his view, “turned Rotorua into a dumping ground for vagrants and miscreants and a slum”.

Regarding the council’s representation bill, which it “paused” yesterday, he said: “I don’t think it’s democratic. I think it’s a racially inflammatory document. I believe in democracy and I also believe in colour blindness.”

He said he was opposed to Māori wards generally.

“The argument for racially selected seats doesn’t sit well with me.

“It belittles the effort of people like Tania [Tapsell] and Trevor [Maxwell] who got elected there by the people irrespective of skin colour and irrespective of their heritage.”

Bentley said after he left the council chambers he called his wife and they “had a coffee and a natter”.

He said his wife had seen how “stressed and wound up” he had become. He didn’t regret quitting and would not be coming back.

After the council meeting Bentley attended a lunch with National Party leader Christopher Luxon, who was visiting Rotorua. Bentley recalled entering the room and receiving a standing ovation for his actions earlier in the day.

He also said he received calls with well wishes and “shock”, including from elected members.

As for the future of the council, Bentley said the next mayor needed to have the support of local businesses.

He said future councillors should keep an “open mind” and be themselves.

“You get elected because you are yourself, don’t turn into someone else.”

He hoped a future council would change the name of the council back from Rotorua Lakes Council to “district council” as he felt the name excluded the rural community, which was an important part of the local economy.

He also believed the name of the Sir Howard Morrison Performing Arts Centre should be changed, either to simply the Rotorua Performing Arts Centre or named after Jean Batten.

Bentley also wanted a future mayor and council to change the senior management.

In response to Bentley’s comments, Chadwick said Bentley was “mistaken” that she wanted to “debate” the bill at the meeting.

“This was not a debate about the bill, it was to provide an update and seek councillors’ guidance.

“I took exception to Peter’s inflammatory and personalised comments and a point of order was called – I did not appreciate being accused of racism.”

She said his comments about staff were a “cheap shot” and which she considered “reprehensible” because they could not publicly defend themselves.

“I have every confidence in the chief executive and his team.”

Bentley’s comments about staff were supplied to the council for the right of reply.

Local Democracy Reporting is public interest journalism funded by NZ On Air

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