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Findings on Code of Conduct Complaint made public

23 Jul 2020, 5:00 PM

One complaint initiated by all six Waitomo District Councillors against Mayor John Robertson has been found to be a breach of the Code of Conduct.


But the three further complaints of the Code of Conduct were not treated as breaches following examination by an independent investigator.


The Code of Conduct complaint was initiated in mid-May this year. The complaint alleged four breaches of the Council’s Code of Conduct involving comments made by the Mayor in a newspaper column, to media and on Facebook.


Chief executive Chris Ryan appointed Robert Buchanan to assess the complaints, see if there had been a breach and if so whether the breach was “material” by bringing the Council into disrepute, or adversely impacting the reputation of another Councillor.  


The investigator’s report is already available and will be formally received at July’s Council meeting in Te Kuiti this Tuesday.


In his report, the investigator said comments made by the Mayor in a Waitomo News column on 5 May did breach section 5.1 of the Council’s Code of Conduct.  This related to maintaining public confidence in the context of maintaining good relationships between Councillors. 


The report said the Mayor considered his statements in the column a “fair reflection of his position” and that he “did not disclose specifics”.  But the Councillors said the information came from a private conversation and the Mayor’s comments represented  “a gross breach of trust” which undermined their confidence in exploring issues and policy options with him.


The investigator said the breach of the Code was not trivial or frivolous, but did not reach the threshold of being material.


“I have noted the Mayor did not name any members personally in this column, although I have also noted the disclosure’s significant impact on some members’ personal interactions with members of the public,” the investigator said in his  report.


“This aspect of the complaint underlines an essential element of local government practice. As in any governance situation, all elected members need to be held to the same standard in respecting common understandings about what “stays in the room” and what doesn’t when they discuss and explore issues informally in advance of formal meeting settings.”


While the other three alleged breaches of the Code were not treated as breaches by the investigator, he raised a “significant concern” about clarity of roles. Those issues needed to be addressed, he said.


The investigator said there is broad agreement from the Mayor and Councillors that Council should clarify its communication strategies and policies, including the status of individual Facebook pages and their relationship to Council’s own website and Facebook page.


The investigator said the Mayor and elected members need to “work together to develop a supportive and inclusive working environment which in turn can foster community confidence and trust in their Council”.  He recommended more clearly understood protocols around a private exchange of views.


The investigator also called for greater clarity around the use of Facebook pages and a stronger understanding about the risks of social media. His primary recommendation was that Council take action to “clarify the status of the respective Facebook pages in relation to the business of Council”.  He also recommended work be done to develop shared expectations on how elected members manage their external communications.


“I would also recommend that this work consider the benefit of having mechanisms for elected members to raise concerns internally about questions of accuracy, completeness, etc in anyone’s social media posts. This would avoid the need for members to resort to public exchanges about their disagreement or to more extreme measures such as Code complaints,” the investigator said in his report.


The investigator noted a number of other “forward-looking measures” had been discussed with the Mayor and Councillors which he recommended be considered.  He said there were differences around what constituted good governance and the declaring and managing of conflicts of interests common in a small community.   A programme of “governance enhancements” was recommended.


In his covering report to Council, chief executive Chris Ryan said “as no material breach of the Code of Conduct was identified, no further investigation is required from Mr Buchanan, and the Code of Conduct investigation is now closed.”




The full report can be found here (PDF 6.86 MB)