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Dyhrberg Drayton Employment Law partner Steph Dyhrberg said ORC chief executive Sarah Gardner was entitled to feel concerned over what she thought were critical or inflammatory media statements that might harm her staff but Cr Laws did not breach the council’s code of conduct in making them.
Councillors had a right to make media comment, within limits, Ms Dyhrberg said.
"Interpreting any public criticism of council actions as creating a risk of physical or psychological harm to employees, and to be a breach of the code of conduct, would effectively prevent any media criticism of council activities," Ms Dyhrberg said in a report the council published yesterday.
The basis of Mrs Gardner’s complaint was Cr Laws’ comments in two stories in the Otago Daily Times in late July.
In a July 21 report on illegal dumping into the Clutha River, he said it was "extraordinarily embarrassing" the council appeared to have advised a company to do something it later took enforcement action over.
He also said he was unhappy with the council staff’s lack of transparency on the matter.
In a July 23 report on public submissions on low-flow scenarios for the Manuherikia River, Cr Laws said he was annoyed staff had released the report, which he described as "crap" and "bogus".
Ms Dyhrberg said Mrs Gardner provided a significant amount of information in her complaint and Cr Laws provided a substantive response.
It was clear there were significant frustrations on both sides, Ms Dyhrberg said.
Both of the situations referred to in the complaint appeared to originally stem from a perceived inadequacy of communication.
"This is something I would encourage the ORC to consider."
Cr Laws’ comments did not identify any ORC employees and no information was disclosed that would allow individual identification, Ms Dyhrberg said. His comments were directed at the ORC as an organisation, not individuals.
Cr Laws’ comments did not breach his obligations regarding courtesy, respect, and public criticism.
For published comments to prejudice the ORC’s ability to provide a safe and healthy workplace to its employees, there must be a real, rather than remote, risk of harm, she said.
She did not let Cr Laws off the hook entirely saying, while the words "crap" and "bogus" were not directed at any staff, his comments were "discourteous and inflammatory".
"As public figures, councillors have a platform on which they can express their views. ORC staff do not," she said.
"It would not be unreasonable to expect councillors to be mindful of this and express their views in a considered manner."
Cr Laws said while he understood he had been found "not guilty" he was scathing of the report.
He told councillors at yesterday’s meeting he took issue with Ms Dyhrberg’s view the language he used was discourteous.
He rejected absolutely constraints on his ability to use the same language used by the people he represented.
And he said if he believed there had been unprofessional conduct at the council, he would say something about it in his role as an elected member.
Mrs Gardner said she accepted the outcome of the investigation.
In part her complaint was made to raise her concern about the impact that statements such as those made by Cr Laws could have on her staff, she said.
"There is a place for forthright language, although not when it impacts people’s personal lives and wellbeing, on and off the job."