MidCentral DHB tightens up its code of conduct rules
Elected MidCentral District Health Board members can now be accused of breaching the code of conduct if they speak to media without first informing the DHB's chairwoman.
A revision to the code of the conduct, passed during a DHB meeting in Horowhenua this week, determined that all board members must now inform chairwoman Dot McKinnon before speaking to the media about board business.
Seven board members are elected by the public, while the other four are appointed by the Minister of Health, who also decides on the chairperson.
The code also states that once the board reaches a decision on a matter, it must remain collectively accountable "even if we individually disagree with them".
The revision sparked debate at the meeting, with not all members happy with the change.
Board member Barbara Robson voted against it. She also brought up comments made at the meeting by Palmerston North resident John Bent, who said the wording was "contrary to the Bill of Rights Act". His comments were "very valid", she said.
Board member Karen Naylor asked why members needed to inform the chairperson that media had made contact.
"Is it so the chair can censor or check what we are going to say or not? Because I think the issue that [Bent] raises is a valid one – freedom of speech."
She said board members often responded to media calls immediately.
"It's not practically possible to say 'I'll get back to you in five minutes because I need to let the chair know that you're asking me a question'."
Naylor said the wording about having to inform the chair about media questions "as soon as possible" seemed controlling.
Chairwoman Dot McKinnon said the wording was not controlling.
"It is absolutely vital that, as chair, I know what's happening and that there are no surprises."
She said she was responsible for keeping the minister informed, so she expected board members to let her know about things that needed to be spoken about.
McKinnon described the rule as a matter of courtesy.
"Even if I don't like what is being said, I still need to know what is being said."
Board member Ann Chapman said she accepted the board was collectively responsible for its decisions or recommendations.
However, she said that should not stop a board member from speaking out on an issue they felt strongly about.
The board's principles and procurement were updated in the code of conduct, as were parts of its policies on individual duties and conflicts of interest. The board's employment relationship was also updated.
It also included a policy which, in some cases, expected members to copy in the chief executive and board chair into emails between elected officials and staff.
Board deputy chairman Brendan Duffy moved the recommendation and Naylor seconded it.
Members voted unanimously to pass it, other than Robson, who voted against it, and Barbara Cameron, who was absent.
It will be reviewed again in three years' time.
Duffy told Stuff the code of conduct was not about punishment.
"The purpose of the code of conduct is for board members to agree the principles by which they will conduct themselves. In the event that it is considered a board member may not have conducted themselves appropriately, a discussion can then occur using the code of conduct as a reference point."
Away from the meeting, Massey University senior journalism lecturer Catherine Strong said it was a worry that the code required elected members to inform the chair before speaking to media.
However, as the code said members should contact the chair "as soon as possible", it gave them latitude to avoid bureaucratic blocks to answering important media questions in a timely manner, Strong said.
She said the code seemed carefully worded to avoid crossing the line of restricting elected members' freedom of expression while still trying to keep tabs on public statements.
"The good point about the newly approved code is that it allows individual members freedom to inform the media how they really feel about a board decision or action.
"The code avoided wording that would make it into a hammer to knock elected members into submission, as is the case in some local government boards," Strong said.