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Dr Catherine Strong

Councils’ conduct codes gag elected members

A Massey researcher is concerned that some local councils are gagging their elected members and stifling free speech.

Dr Catherine Strong from the School Communication, Journalism and Marketing, says there is a disturbing paragraph creeping into some councils’ operating policies.

“It basically prevents elected members talking to the media about anything negative within their council. This includes council decisions, policies and overall reputations,” she says.

The research will be presented at the Journalism Education Association of New Zealand Conference in Christchurch on Thursday, and is a content analysis of codes of conduct of all 67 city and district councils in New Zealand.

While most councils clearly stated that elected members have the right to talk freely to the media (with obvious restrictions around confidential information and employment practices), the research found that 10 councils (15 per cent) restrict elected members giving critical opinion to the media.

This amounts to gagging the elected members – the very people who are representing the community, Dr Strong says. “They are not meant to be spin doctors for the council.”

She suspects newly-elected councillors approve the entire 4000 word code of conduct without scrutinising the wording of the small media section within it.

The study found that 43 councils used codes of conducts, as originally set out in the Local Government Act 2002, to acknowledge the necessary relationship between the media and the council. Some of these included slight variations, such as Auckland City Council elaborating on the procedure and also stating that elected members aren’t to make media statements “derogatory in respect of another elected member”.

Another 14 councils, including Wellington, Hutt City, Christchurch and Invercargill, applied their own wording to convey a similar message, but 10 others contained what Dr Strong describes as “disturbing restrictions”, preventing elected members speaking out publicly on issues they disagreed with.

“In fact, it seemed all inclusive to prevent criticism,” she says. “Some prevent criticism of conduct of council, or criticism of council decisions, or undermining council decisions, or bringing council into disrepute.”

Three councils, Whakatane District Council, Waitomo District Council and Kapiti Coast District Council, used verbatim paragraphs, including punctuation errors, to essentially prevent elected members speaking out negatively against their local authority stating they “shall not criticise the conduct of the council”.

Another three councils – Gisborne, Central Otago and Kaikoura District Councils – used a slight variation of the wording adding “nor should it undermine any existing policy or decision”.

Napier City Council added one additional word to prevent “personal” criticism. “No such statements should make personal criticism of the proper conduct of the council or of other elected members, officers of the council or members of the public,” its code states.

Two councils –Tauranga City Council and Buller District Council – prevent media comments that would “undermine” council policy. Dr Strong says this word could be interpreted to prevent any criticism.

Matamata-Piako District Council used wording to ensure there was no criticism in general media or in usage of social media: “They must not criticise other elected members, council decisions or council staff in the media or on council’s or their own personal social media pages.”

“These restrictions on elected members speaking publicly mean that the community gets the impression all decisions get all agreement, and that there are no contrary views to the myriad of policies and decisions a council takes,” Dr Strong says.

The findings show that New Zealand communities need to safeguard their reputation for having one of the most open democracies and free media in the world, she says.

“The public should be appalled that their elected representatives may bite their lips and keep mum when there are important things ratepayers should know.”

Dr Strong says at present there are very few penalties for councillors who break the code. The only penalty is what individual councils may impose, which is usually preventing the councillor from attending certain meetings or participating in some decision-making.

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