Man charged with trespassing after incidents at fare counter

Police believe a disgruntled taxpayer may be behind the scare that forced the evacuation and closure of Whakatāne District Council offices on Friday afternoon.

A 70-year-old Ōhope man appeared in Whakatāne District Court on Tuesday charged with trespassing in relation to the incident, which occurred on the last day for payment of quarterly fees.

Community experience general manager Georgina Fletcher said a member of the public alerted customer service staff to a suspicious package inside the main council building at around 1.45pm.

This triggered a procedure to evacuate the building and call the police.

Local Democracy Reporting understands that the red suitcase was left at the entrance to the council chambers.

The incident was captured by security cameras. The accused allegedly entered the town hall offices in the morning with a large amount of coins that he dropped on the customer service counter, saying that they would go towards his fees.

Whakatāne Police Acting Senior Sergeant Roy Glaspey said police were called to the council building on Commerce Street at 1.50pm on Friday after a suitcase was found inside the entrance.

The Auckland-based bomb squad was called in and were heading to Whakatāne, but were recalled.

Glaspey said the bomb squad was able to provide guidance to Whakatāne staff who examined the suitcase while the building was evacuated and cordons were in place.

The suitcase was empty. Police later identified the man who had left the suitcase there.

The person who left the case in the building’s lobby had not made any direct threats, Glaspey said.

However, the council building had previously been broken into and charges were laid.

“As this is currently in the court process, we cannot comment further,” Glaspey said.

“However, we want to acknowledge the disruption that has been caused to the local community and thank you for your patience and cooperation.”

The man appeared in court for the first time yesterday accused of breaking and entering. His next court appearance will be June 11.

The charge carries a maximum penalty of three months in prison or a $1,000 fine.

Fletcher said the council would carry out its own internal review of the incident.

“The safety of staff and the community is paramount; “Any event that disrupts council business and affects staff wellbeing is taken extremely seriously.”

As a result of this incident, the city council extended the deadline for payment of the fourth installment of fees from Friday to Monday, since those who wanted to pay at the offices on Friday afternoon were unable to do so.