No-confidence vote against Mayor Paul Simmons splits Coorong council
Bullying allegations and high tempers continue to plague the troubled Coorong District Council.
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Coorong councillors have passed a vote of no confidence in Mayor Paul Simmons over his handling of alleged bullying within the council.
Tuesday’s vote had its origins in an email exchange between councillors in January, which Cr Tracy Hill alleged had included “abuse, bullying and derogatory comments” about her.
She complained about the emails at the council’s February meeting.
At that time, Cr Simmons said he would take her concerns on board, but otherwise dismissed the emails as “banter”.
Cr Neville Jaensch brought on the no-confidence vote without warning at the council’s next regular meeting, this Tuesday.
He argued that Cr Simmons had failed to demonstrate a duty of care to Cr Hill, and had failed to act impartially or in the best interests of the council’s reputation.
Three out of the seven councillors present agreed: Sharon Bland, Tracy Hill and Vern Leng.
Three councillors aligned with the former Team for Change – Lisa Rowntree, Jeff Arthur and Brenton Qualmann – were opposed.
Cr Simmons left the room for the vote, while Cr Glynis Taylor was absent as she continued a fundraising paddle down the River Murray.
All three Team for Change councillors left the room in protest after the vote, which Cr Rowntree described as “an ambush” and “hugely disrespectful”.
However, they returned a few minutes later and the meeting was able to continue.
Councillors demand apologies from each other
Next, Councillors Hill and Rowntree each demanded that the mayor make the other apologise for her behaviour.
Cr Rowntree alleged that, in the email which sparked the January exchange, Cr Hill had shared messages dating back to 2018 which were supposed to have been private.
Cr Hill sought an apology for comments Cr Rowntree and Cr Taylor allegedly made in response.
Councillors approved Cr Hill’s request in a 5-3 vote.
A vote on Cr Rowntree’s request was tied.
Both councillors, at different points during the meeting, agreed that there had been bad behaviour on all sides of the council chamber over the past four years.
“There’s apologies owed everywhere,” Cr Rowntree said.
“I just want it brought to a head,” Cr Hill said.
Disagreements spill over as council term draws to a close
The Coorong council has been plagued by infighting since the bitter 2018 election, when the so-called Team for Change swept most of the previous councillors out of office.
Councillors have since filed at least seven code of conduct complaints against each other, two of which – against Cr Leng and Cr Taylor – were upheld.
Cr Taylor also filed a criminal assault charge against Cr Leng at one point; it was later dropped by police.
The Local Government Association of South Australia made it clear back in 2020 that it had “extreme concern” about the way the council was operating, and that a complete breakdown of the elected member group was likely.
Mediators have since been required to step in on several occasions.
“The whole lot of us should have a good look at ourselves,” Cr Qualmann said on Tuesday.
“Our community would hold little respect for us.
“Let’s get on with it – let’s drop everything, have a fresh start and become good councillors.”
Cr Sharon Bland agreed that the “rubbish” needed to stop.
“But we’ve had that discussion many times,” she said.
What will the no-confidence vote actually mean?
A vote of no confidence would usually lead to Cr Simmons being banned from speaking on behalf of the council at events, in meetings or media interviews.
However, council CEO Bridget Mather told Murray Bridge News on Wednesday that she was still awaiting legal advice on that point.
Because the vote had related to one particular matter – not Cr Simmons’ general suitability for the role of Mayor – it would be “business as usual” for the time being, she said.
Cr Simmons told Murray Bridge News he, too was awaiting advice about what would happen next.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the charge against Cr Leng was dropped by SA Police; and that Cr Hill requested apologies from both Cr Rowntree and Cr Taylor.