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A new code of conduct

Elected members at South Wairarapa District Council have adopted a new Code of Conduct. PHOTO/FILE

South Wairarapa councillors have adopted a new code of conduct, one which removes a controversial and outdated caveat forbidding criticism of council decisions and policy.

An investigation by Local Democracy Reporting in September found that of New Zealand’s 78 councils, South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] was the only one with this caveat.

SWDC’s previous code stated: “Elected members are entitled to make public statements expressing their opinion on matters before the council … such statements may not criticise the conduct of the council, other elected members or officers of the council, nor should they undermine any existing policy or decision of the council.”

The previous code was adopted in 2002, revised in 2003, and amended in 2013 and 2016.

A review of the code was planned for early in the triennium, but due to covid and other work priorities this review was delayed.

It meant the council and community board members were bound by an old code.

In Local Democracy Reporting’s September investigation, local government experts labelled the old code as a “restriction on democracy”.

Community boards in the district also expressed their concerns with the code and South Wairarapa Mayor Alex Beijen confirmed a full review would continue as time and capability allowed.

At Wednesday’s full council meeting, chief executive Harry Wilson said there were key differences between the old and new code.

He said the new code included a process for reporting, investigating, and assessing complaints, provided modern media engagement guidance for elected members, including a section on the use of social media, and included principles that highlighted the importance of elected members “pulling their weight”.

Adopting the new code brings South Wairarapa District Council in line with the majority of New Zealand’s councils which have used Local Government New Zealand’s [LGNZ] 2016 suggested Code of Conduct as a template.

The SWDC code differs from the LGNZ template with a clause stating: “The mayor, community board chairs, and the chief executive officer will meet informally from time to time to maintain and promote effective communication and for the purpose of ensuring that all parties are familiar with the work being carried out by each; and to improve co-ordination; and to ensure the business of the council, its committees, and the community boards is conducted in a timely and effective manner”.

SWDC’s new draft code also includes a section on “public duty” which states that elected members have a responsibility to the whole community of the South Wairarapa district.

“Council members are elected on a ward basis and have a special interest in that ward, but their prime responsibility is to the district as a whole.”

It states that community board members are responsible to the electors of their own community but are bound by the decisions of the council.

“Actions of all elected members may need to be justified to the public.

“The reputation of the council is dependent on elected members’ conduct, and the public perception of this conduct.” – NZLDR

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