Councillors and codes of conduct

Peter Chemis, based in Wellington, will lead the review into Napier City Council's trawl of...
Peter Chemis, based in Wellington, will lead the review into Napier City Council's trawl of councillor Facebook pages. Photo: NZME
It was scarcely believable. Napier City Council staff scrutinising councillors' social media.

This was described as "creepy" by some of those monitored on their Facebook accounts and "undemocratic" by a local governance ordinance specialist.

Absolutely. Such goings on are outrageous and an affront to the independence of councillors, and all the more so in an election year.

The news this week of an "independent" inquiry into the scrutiny is, in turn, creating its own issues.

Everyone is entitled to treat that word "independent" with scepticism. How often are inquiries, surveys and reviews described as "independent" when that so-called independence is compromised in one way or another.

The inquiry will be carried out before the local election, Acting Mayor Faye White confirmed. That is ambitious. Voting papers are due to go out towards the end of next week.

In the meantime, at least until Mrs White has briefed chief executive Wayne Jack about the inquiry and the terms of reference were agreed to on his return from holiday this week, no details were being released.

Mrs White has cited the fact the chief executive was overseas and was employed by the councillors as a reason for not making any public comment yet. Other councillors have also declined to comment for now.

Although the reluctance, given the strictures under employment law, is understandable, Massey University local governance expert Andy Asquith has raised concerns about who was going to conduct the review, what the terms of reference would be and what questions would be asked.

Mrs White said the name of the reviewer had been canvassed and no concerns raised.

But the public, the people who "employ" the councillors themselves, are being shut out of input before decision-making. It is too late for them to give possible feedback about what the terms of reference and shape of the inquiry should be.

Somehow, Napier, under its code of conduct, decided elected members could not voice negative opinions publicly. As a Massey University author of a 2014 study into the matter, Catherine Strong, said: "Of course councillors should criticise ... they're representing ratepayers, not spin doctors for council".

Dr Strong said an ambiguous sentence in the code was to blame.

It was Mr Jack who ordered staff to go through the Facebook pages of six councillors who voted against a new $41million aquatic centre. Mr Jack supports the centre.

This sparked offence. One fourth-term councillor, Maxine Boag, said she had not received any warnings about breaching the code of conduct until this term, and she had received five or six in the last term. Councillors were becoming hesitant to speak to the public and media.

Although councils require codes, they must tread lightly on councillor behaviour. Only the most egregious incidents should be pursued.

These can, however, include personal attacks on staff, especially because staff are often in public. On the other hand, council staff, including the chief executive, have considerable power through the control of information and reports.

It also behoves councillors, while criticism is an essence of politics, not to blatantly distort the facts. The problem here is the distinction between fact and opinion is not always clear. "Facts" can be disputed and be open to interpretation.

Few cases, nevertheless, can be as clearly flagrant as staff trawling through councillor social media pages. There are always dangers that codes can be used as "weapons" against councillors who disagree with staff.

Councils and local democracy need rebels who question the council line and council majorities. Equally, those "outsiders" need to ensure their responses and their behaviour are responsible.

 

Comments

Havelock North are real troublemakers, with their 'Golden Dawn' and anthroposophy.

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