Laws labelled sinister and cowardly

Otago regional councillor Michael Laws has been labelled muddled, sinister and cowardly by a departed council staffer.

Cr Laws says he does not care what the former staffer calls him, adding he is "delighted" that the staff member has left the organisation and that as an environmental activist, he should never have been hired in the first place.

Former Green Party leadership candidate and now-former Otago Regional Council (ORC) biodiversity partnership lead Alex Foulkes has taken a swipe at Cr Laws, who criticised him during his campaign.

Cr Laws was unperturbed.

"People like that should not end up in an organisation in which they are creating or implementing policy when they have very clear and extreme political views," he said of Mr Foulkes.

"They sully the organisation of which they are a part.

"It also leads to, in the public, a wider perception that the organisation that they represent or create policy for has a particular political agenda that is at variance with mainstream society and the folks they are dealing with."

Hiring "activists" was counter to ensuring the council was perceived as politically neutral, he said.

Mr Foulkes left his position at the council yesterday after less than a year on the job.

He is returning to the United Kingdom for family reasons.

Alex Foulkes
Alex Foulkes

During his time as a staff member at the council, he made an unsuccessful bid for the Green Party co-leadership.

He received no votes and Auckland Central MP Chloe Swarbrick took the role.

It came after council climate policy adviser Francisco Hernandez campaigned as a candidate for Dunedin in last year’s general election.

Mr Hernandez has since left the council for Parliament as a Green Party list MP.

When Mr Foulkes stood for the party leadership, Cr Laws said he could not trust advice from them as staff members, "given their overt championing of a political party that takes extreme environmental policy positions".

He questioned too "whether the Green Party has installed an activist cadre within the ORC staff".

At the time, Mr Foulkes referred comment to the council’s communication team.

Mr Foulkes now said as an employee he was bound by a comprehensive conflict of interest agreement he had signed with the council.

But after departing the organisation, he was able to defend himself, he said.

Cr Laws was "cowardly" for making remarks knowing he was unable to respond to councillor criticism, Mr Foulkes said.

He said Cr Laws was "muddled", because he had no role in policy.

And he said questioning whether the chief executive had read his CV was to insinuate the council should "weed out environmentalists" from the organisation.

"That was more than muddled — that was sinister and McCarthyite," Mr Foulkes said.

"It was infuriating. It was unprofessional and it wasn’t right.

"If Cr Laws wanted to raise it internally, that’s fine, but he decided to send [correspondence] to you guys as well.

So, he made it public. He chose to make it an issue, he chose to attack me in the press and I had no ability to respond."

ORC chief executive Richard Saunders said councillors were made aware of the conflict of interest process when Mr Foulkes was standing for the party co-leader role.

The council did not screen staff candidates for their political affiliations during recruitment, nor would that be appropriate.

It did ask people if they had any potential or perceived conflicts of interest that could impact on their work and would need to be managed through conflict management plan.

Staff with party or other interest group affiliations must ensure their relationships or views did not impede their ability to do their job in a politically neutral manner; if they shared those views outside work, they must make it clear the views were their own, and must not undertake any activities associated with those affiliations during work hours.

"We work hard as an organisation to develop a positive and constructive relationship with all councillors. We respect the role of our elected members who are chosen by our community to represent our region."

He did not accept that Mr Foulkes or Mr Hernandez were political activists, as Mr Laws described them. They were members of the Green Party and he could not comment on an individual’s views about whether they were activists.

The ORC supported the rights of individuals to participate in democratic processes.

As a regional authority, the ORC was and must be politically neutral, Mr Saunders said.

It "worked hard" with Mr Foulkes and Mr Hernandez to manage potential conflicts of interest.

Mr Foulkes had followed the correct procedure in raising potential conflict with staff when he stood for election.

Mr Saunders confirmed the council had received formal complaints about Cr Laws, but he could not supply details because of privacy and employment obligations.