David Clapperton: Culture of complaint promotes individual rights above individual responsibility

Horowhenua District Council chief executive Davd Clapperton: "Right now, our community is highly politicised."
Warwick Smith

Horowhenua District Council chief executive Davd Clapperton: "Right now, our community is highly politicised."

OPINION: It's every employer's nightmare. What do you do when your staff feel threatened, abused, bullied and undermined in emails and Facebook posts?

What is the price of free speech when this 'new' freedom lets people sound off in the worst possible way in the heat of the moment, and often with little or no respect for the facts?

Some of the stuff that people email or post on social media you wouldn't get away with down at the pub - if you did you'd start a brawl.

But these days if things don't go your way, or you disagree with a decision of council you can get stuck in, and target a powerless employee who can't answer back.

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Horowhenua's had a fair bit of it. Not just the email situation that has received so much recent publicity, but an ongoing culture of complaint that seems to be about individual rights and not much about individual responsibility – democracy has never provided a licence for inappropriate behaviour, yet here we are.

Most councils have an electronic communications policy. Emails received and sent by staff are subject to monitoring for inappropriate use and to ensure they comply with professional standards.

However, incoming derogatory, insulting content doesn't always get caught. Nor does it catch emails that contain political content that aims to interfere with an Officer's duty.

As well as that, we have incoming nonsense on social media – Facebook posts suggesting councillors should be gunned down, that staff are 'Third World' and incompetent.

What happened to a bit of self-control? Perhaps our society needs to rethink the use of social media. It's a challenging problem and simply having a workplace policy does not prevent it from happening.

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A local body chief executive has a clear responsibility for the well-being of staff and their working conditions. It's in the job description, which also requires the chief executive to 'seek to achieve a high level of morale in council and foster an environment of trust, honesty and openness'. The conditions are also specified in the Local Government Act 2002 Part 4 Section 42.

Therefore, I would again intervene to check, monitor, quarantine and even block emails that 'have a go' at staff. It's easy to quote the old children's rhyme that 'sticks and stones'll break your bones but names'll never hurt you' – but I've seen the effects of ill words on council employees, elected members and family members. Thankfully, there are only a handful of keyboard trolls in our community but sadly, their reach is far and wide, and it is not on!

These days, local government activities seem to trigger stronger feelings of anger in some people. Dogs, trees, waste, water, rates, roading, resource consents, drainage – they're all council's job to administer and fix. The Long Term Plan sets out the agenda, but it's the day-to-day decisions that can get tricky. People have always challenged the way councils do things, but it didn't use to be so nasty, dishonest or politically motivated.

For years, local government chief executive were called town clerks who saw to it that council, staff, roads, drains and ratepayers were looked after and everything ticked over. The town clerk rarely made headlines! How times have changed. If you can please 'some of the people some of the time' you're doing well. However, pleasing all of the people all of the time is probably not going to happen – and social media is seeing to that.

Lately, council chief executive throughout New Zealand have been in the news: challenged about pay, conditions of employment, decisions and outcomes, often so aggressively that some of my peers feel that there is a misunderstanding about what we can and can't do.

We are the servants of the council! We implement council decisions within the parameters of the Long Term Plan and the money available. The councillors are paramount and employ the chief executives. It is as simple as that. They are the representatives of the community, and they shape the district's future.

Councils are democratic organisations charged with providing for our communities. Although Horowhenua is not a big district, its activities are complex and affected all the time by variables like central government policy; natural disasters, emergencies; population shift or drift.

Right now, our community is highly politicised. But, for many people, it's not clear what is going on, and they just want us to get the job done quickly and quietly.

Leaks, breaches of confidentiality and abuse don't help. It's often said that democracy is a flawed system, but it is the best we've got. It's now time for our elected members to consider the rules around emails, social media and standing orders – we have to do better, for all our residents, employees and elected members.

* David Clapperton is the chief executive of Horowhenua District Council. 

 - Stuff

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