Council chief removes staff's submissions

Personal submissions made by council staff to Wairoa District Council's annual plan have been removed by the council's new chief executive, who believes the practice is "wrong, or at the very least, undesirable".

The legality of Fergus Power's decision has been called into question, with the Public Service Association calling for a nationally consistent approach.

Power, who was appointed to the position in April, sent staff an e-mail last month informing them he was removing personal staff submissions to the draft annual plan submission process.

"I did so as, in almost 30 years of experience in local government, I have never before witnessed staff attempting to influence the decision-making of their own organisation through a submission process," Power said in the email.

He said the practice was "wrong, or at the very least, undesirable" and referred to an Employment Relations Authority ruling that found "council officers effectively ‘suspend' a portion of their rights to unfettered free expression once they assume the mantle of ‘public servant' ".

He told The Dominion Post the council received six submissions from staff which "varied from supportive of council's direction, to being critical of the proposed rates increase, various initiatives planned, and indicating disbelief that the nature and quality of council services would change as a result of changes which I am implementing within council".

An alternative process had been implemented which would in future allow all staff to be involved in workshops before the annual plan process to allow them to have input.

PSA acting national secretary Glenn Barclay said the organisation "disagreed with the line the council is running".

"We think our members have rights as members of their communities as well and should have the right to make submissions on the annual plan and so forth."

Making submissions was "a fundamental right of all citizens and residents that should not be cut across", Barclay said. He had written to the council, and a meeting had been arranged for both parties and Local Government New Zealand "to work through a nationally consistent approach to these issues".

LGNZ president Lawrence Yule said Wairoa was a small council, meaning staff who made submissions were often involved in the decision-making process.

There was probably no legal mandate enabling a council to stop staff making submissions, and there was no legal guidance on the issue, he said.

But there were clear rules on conflicts of interest and "you can't have staff making submissions to council and have the same staff providing advice to council . . . that would be very poor practice".

Mr Yule said he was pleased with the process Power had put in place to enable staff to have their say on issues in the plan, and was confident meetings between all parties would help clarify a consistent approach.

The Dominion Post