Cathy Strong: Some councils using code to quash dissent

Horowhenua District Council building in Levin.

Horowhenua District Council building in Levin.

OPINION: New Zealand's reputation as a beacon of open democracy and free media is getting tarnished, and this may get worse, thanks to our local councils.

Some local councils are moving steadily towards a culture of secrecy, or ultra information-control, more in keeping with a corporation than with a public body.

And this affects homeowners even more in the environment of rising house prices, which lead to property owners paying more rates. This financial investment in a council means the community should know details of decisions, not just the announcement of a decision. Such projects as building expensive sewage plants or aquatic centres can falter because of the details of the decision.

New Zealand has slipped out of the top-10 countries for free media in the global Reporters Without Borders index. Our ranking of 13 out of 180 countries is still good by global standards, but the drop is alarming.

One problem is the increasing number of government agencies blocking requests for information. The Ombudsman's Office faces an increasing number of complaints; last year this included 383 specifically about local authorities being reluctant to release public information when asked by media or individuals.

Journalists are well aware of these roadblocks, as often they ask for simple information and are told they have to make it an official information request and wait four weeks for the answer. And even then, the information may be withheld or further delayed.

But a more vexing problem is the local councils that try to thwart open dialogue by elected members – the people supposedly representing the public and with a better understanding of local issues than most. One method of information control is to use the code of conduct to prevent councillors being critical publicly.

Every council is required to have an elected members' code of conduct, but there are no rules about what is or isn't in the code. Most stipulate how councillors should behave with each other, with the public, and with the media. The recommended code put out by Local Government NZ at the end of last year accepts elected members can be critical when talking to the media, as long as they make clear these are their personal views, not the council's.

But some councils seem to be ignoring this advice; 22 per cent, in fact, adopted codes worded in a way that could prevent elected members from going public with criticism of the council or its behaviour.

What does a few words in a local council policy document mean to the average person? Do councils with the anti-criticism codes operate any differently?

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Most chief executives or mayors of the anti-criticism councils told me their elected members ignored the wording of the code, criticised loudly, and debated robustly.

That's what they say. But others have a different view.

Residents' associations and journalists working with anti-criticism councils contend that some operate in a culture of secrecy and quell public controversy. These are the same councils that regularly hold closed-door meetings.

Journalists say councillors stay mum even when a council action is adversely affecting their ward, and elected members at two different councils quit because of feeling they were gagged.

One editor termed it "sanitised democracy" while another said councillors were being turned into "spin doctors" for council staff, rather than representatives of the community.

In other words, some councils are conducting themselves like private corporations, not like democratically elected bodies. One mayor even admitted they wanted to "speak with one voice", and others were proud of preventing public controversy.

But what is wrong with controversy? What is wrong with debates on issues that affect people and their community?

The answer is simple: nothing is wrong with emotionally charged discussions, because democracy is based on everyone having a say.

Quenching public controversy can also stifle accountability, and councillors are accountable to the public, not to corporate shareholders.

Codes of conduct

Find out if your local council's code of conduct could be used to quieten criticism from elected members.

  •  Search for "elected members code of conduct" on the council website
  •  Scroll down to the section on "contact with media"
  •  See if there are any words indicating no "criticism" of council.
  •  See if there are any words indicating no "blemish" of council image.
  •  If there is anti-criticism wording, be concerned.

Dr Cathy Strong is a senior lecturer in journalism at Massey University. 

 - The Dominion Post

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