Councillor doubles down on criticism

Richard Saunders. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Richard Saunders. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The chief executive of the Otago Regional Council is accused of not understanding the concept of public sector neutrality, as a councillor doubles down on criticism around council staff having political affiliations.

In correspondence between Cr Michael Laws and council chief executive Richard Saunders, provided to the Otago Daily Times, Cr Laws told Mr Saunders he had "compromised the impartiality and integrity" of the staff’s advice to councillors and the public perception of the organisation.

"You don’t get the concept of public sector neutrality in the wider organisation, Richard", Cr Laws said.

He was writing in February to Mr Saunders about his concerns about the employment of two now-former staffers, Alex Foulkes, who ran for the leadership of the Green Party, and Francisco Hernandez, who recently became a Green MP.

Asked this week for his response to those comments, Mr Saunders said he respected Cr Laws’ opinion, was satisfied he did understand the concept of public sector political neutrality and would continue to ensure the council operated in an appropriate manner when it came to such matters.

There were several checks and balances in place to ensure reports councillors received were accurate and impartial, he said.

As to whether, as Cr Laws suggested, employing activists or politically affiliated staff compromised that, or the perception of it, Mr Saunders said it was not unheard of for organisations of all types to employ individuals affiliated to various parties and causes.

Conflict of interest provisions were deployed in such cases at the council.

"We can only give assurances around our processes that we work as hard as we can to mitigate any perceived or actual conflicts of interest - similar to any organisation."