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Elected members urged to protect their political rights

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Elected members urged to protect their political rights

Newly elected councillors are being urged by a Massey University researcher to carefully read code of conduct documents so they don’t give away their political rights.

School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing senior lecturer Dr Catherine Strong says in the last council term some local authorities approved a code of conduct that prevented elected members criticising council in the media.

Local Government New Zealand this week issued its first new model code of conduct and guidelines in 14 years. Dr Strong urges all councils to follow the intent of the 6000-word document put forward for approval.

“This is at a time when many councillors are new and not used to the huge amount of reading involved in the job. But it is more than reading, it is digesting and critically assessing what they are being asked to approve,” Dr Strong says.

Her research shows that in the last term 22 per cent of councils adopted codes, including anti-criticism wording, which prevented councillors speaking out in the media. Other councils adopted codes that allowed criticism that was of a personal opinion and not representative of the full council.

“It seems some councils erroneously see themselves as a board of directors running a private corporation behind closed doors. Nothing could be further from the truth, as councils are the decision makers of a public authority and have the responsibility of working with the public and not against it,” she says.

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“Councils should not be afraid of controversy and robust debates in the media as that is part of democracy, and it actually encourages the community to be engaged in local government affairs.”

In most communities there are very wise and experienced residents who can help councillors assess the potential implications of any document, and it is media discussions that often spotlight these insights, Dr Strong says.

She recommends that all councils and councillors read the new code devised by Local Government New Zealand.

“It is almost 6000 words long, but the part outlining relations between elected members and the media is only 337 words. It clearly gives elected members the right to speak freely in the media, even to criticise council. It make the obvious recommendation that elected members make it very clear when they are talking personally and not representing council,” she says.

Background on councils’ interpretation of former code of conduct

Four councils, Tauranga City Council, Buller District Council, Matamata-Piako District Council and Hastings District Council used wording stopping the elected members talking to the media about anything that might hurt the Council’s image.

Five councils, Gisborne, Central Otago, Kaikoura, Queenstown-Lakes, South Wairarapa went further to prevent criticism of the council, its decisions and policies.

Napier City Council inserted the word “personal” to clarify that type of criticism is prohibited, while Thames-Coromandel directed elected members to support decisions, as well as prevent them criticising decisions and policy.

Another four councils, Whakatane, Waitomo, Kapiti Coast and Nelson expressly advised elected members “public statements expressing their opinion on matters before The Council shall not criticise the conduct of the council.”

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