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Local government expert says Ministry should step in after CEO ordered 'Big Brother' trawl of dissenting councillors' Facebook posts

One of New Zealand's foremost experts on local government says it's time for central government to step in at Napier City Council (NCC) after the CEO was accused of stifling democracy, with another saying he is creating a climate of fear.

Radio NZ released emails obtained through the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) on Monday which showed council CEO Wayne Jack asking council staff to trawl through Facebook posts made by city councillors who oppose a new pool complex - a project Mr Jack supports.

The purpose of the monitoring appears to have been to compile a dossier of posts which could potentially be used as ammunition in Code of Conduct cases against the councillors.

The Code of Conduct for Napier City Councillors expressly forbids them from criticising Council processes or employees publicly.

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A 2014 Massey University study found that NCC is one of only a handful of councils in the country which forbid councillors from sharing negative opinions publicly, which study author Dr Catherine Strong called "disturbing".

The councillors involved say it's clear the trawling was carried out because they don't support the pool project, that it was inappropriate to have council staff spending time on this, and that the environment at the council is "unhealthy".

Part of an email sent by a Napier City Council staff member to CEO Wayne Jack. Source: rnz.co.nz

Despite criticism mounting following the release of the information, Mr Jack has taken annual leave, and will be away and unavailable for another two weeks, a spokesperson told 1 NEWS.

Acting Mayor Faye White is also away on annual leave, and the spokesperson said she will only be available for comment "next week".

On Monday, Victoria University law professor Dr Dean Knight told RNZ it appeared to be a case of the Code of Conduct being used "as a weapon" against councillors who disagree with staff.

"If code of conducts are used to suppress half the conversation, the squeaky wheel, the uncomfortable naysayer, then we have an impoverished form of democracy," Dr Knight said.

NCC Acting Chief Executive Adele Henderson yesterday dismissed those concerns, telling 1 NEWS "Mr Knight is entitled to his view".

Napier City Council Director of Corporate Services - and Acting CEO - Adele Henderson. Source: Supplied

Mrs Henderson said councillors agree to the Code of Conduct when they take the job.

Addressing the information collection, she said "Facebook is a public space, so there is nothing sinister about management viewing councillor Facebook pages if alerted to potential issues with what is being said."

The emails show it was Mrs Henderson who alerted Mr Jack to councillor posts she believed breached the Code, which then appeared to prompt Mr Jack to ask a staff member to trawl through Facebook to look for other potential offences.

Mrs Henderson refused to tell 1 NEWS which code of conduct Mr Jack is bound by, and also refused to say who the chair of the Council's Chief Executive Performance Review Committee is, or whether this matter would be discussed at its next meeting.

The council said answering those questions would be "inappropriate".

EXPERT: CEO'S USE OF POWER 'UNACCEPTABLE'

Local governance expert Dr Andy Asquith, a senior lecturer at Massey University's School of Management, says Mr Jack's behaviour was "quite simply un-democratic."

"It's unacceptable what's been done - it's not the sort of level behaviour that we would expect from our officials - it smacks of Big Brother, doesn't it?" Mr Asquith said.

"I would question the motivation - what motivates the decision to instruct council officers to troll through people's social media postings? What's the agenda driving this? Is it an appropriate use of a public servant's time?"

Mr Asquith said there's a risk of Mr Jack attempting to fill the "power vacuum" left when Bill Dalton took leave following a stroke.

Napier Mayor Bill Dalton. Source: Napier City Council

"The CEO works for the council, is employed by the Council and should be accountable to the Council," he said.

"The Council shouldn't be accountable to the CEO - when that happens, which it looks as though that is certainly creeping in, in Napier, then something's wrong.

"Unfortunately in New Zealand, the management system puts all the power of a local authority in the hands of a chief executive - but that does not - and should not - stretch to enable them to basically muzzle local body politicians."

Mr Asquith said that the officials concerned "conveniently" taking annual leave as the information was released was "simply not good enough.

"It's just ducking for cover, it's a lack of accountability and a lack of transparency," he said.

"If you seek these positions, especially when they are in the public sector, then you take the nice bits - the nice salary and all the other bits that go with it - but you have to take the flak as well - if your skin is not thick enough, then don't do it."

"I think they will try to wait it out - hoping the whole thing goes away, that's the best case scenario that they'll be looking for."

'FEAR AMONG COUNCILLORS FOR VOICING DISSENTING OPINIONS'

Auckland University lecturer in New Zealand politics Lara Greaves says using the Code of Conduct in this way "is likely to create a level of fear among councillors for voicing dissenting opinions.

"One of the great things about our system is that policies can be strengthened by listening to and reflecting on the views of the opposition (or even ditching a policy if the opposition becomes the majority)," Ms Greaves said.

"If the opposition to a policy decision is suppressed in some way, then this is bad for decision making."

Ms Greaves said having disciplinary action taken against them would be "extra stress on council members for doing their jobs.

"Using the code of conduct in this way is likely to suppress dissenting opinions, which are needed in a democracy, and needed to strengthen policies that we all benefit from.

"A code of conduct for councillors is needed, for example, in the case of a conflict of interest or if they commit a crime or display a severe lack of judgement - however, I think most people will think that this is stretching it beyond its intended use.

"Most voters would view this as a waste of the council's time and money - scrolling through the emails and screenshots in the LGOIMA request, this just seems to be rather petty and a poor use of staff time.

"I think most people will view what the staff did as a bit creepy and will not feel comfortable with the direction this is heading in for democracy."

MINISTER OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT STEERS CLEAR

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta told 1 NEWS the issue "is an operational matter to be considered by Napier City Council utilising its existing processes."

Minister for Local Government and Māori Development Nanaia Mahuta. Source: Te Karere

Ms Mahuta said it would not be appropriate for either her or the Department of Internal affairs to step in to the situation - but also gave a subtle warning.

"The Minister notes that all public servants, including council staff, are bound by a responsibility to act in a politically neutral way that does not inhibit democratic debate."

Mr Asquith says that response shows that central government are not taking local authorities seriously.

"The Minister needs to show leadership," he said.

"There are one or two councils that can be described as dysfunctional, and the government should take decisive action, but seem to be dancing around and watching.

The Napier City Council offices on Hastings Street in Napier. Source: Google Streetview

"The Minister has the power to send in Commissioners - it hasn't happened very much in the past, but Rodney (north of Auckland) had commissioners sent in in 2000, Commissioners were sent in to ECan, and Commissioners were sent in to Kaipara.

"The Minister has got this power, and Commissioners were sent in to these other places because of prolonged bad smells coming out of the council offices.

"You have to ask yourself - how long does this smell have to emanate from Napier? How bad does it have to get?"

The 2019 Local Government Elections will take place in October.

A split image of Dr Andy Asquith, local government expert of Massey University, left, and Napier City Council Chief Executive Wayne Jack. Source: Supplied/Napier City Council/1 NEWS composite