A Massey University researcher has taken Napier City Council to task over its code of conduct, saying it is one of a handful of councils around the country that stifles the free speech of councillors.

But Napier Mayor Bill Dalton says the code has not been needed for years and he encourages his councillors to speak out.

Dr Catherine Strong, from Massey's School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, analysed the codes of conduct of all 67 city and district councils.

Napier City was the only Hawke's Bay council to include what she called "disturbing" wording preventing elected representatives members talking to the media about anything negative within their council.

Advertisement

While most councils clearly stated that elected members have the right to talk freely to the media - apart from restrictions around confidential information and employment practices - she found that 10 councils, including Napier, restrict elected members giving critical opinions to the media.

She said that amounted to gagging elected members who were there to represent the community.

"They are not meant to be spin doctors for the council."

According to Napier City Council's code of conduct, statements from councillors should not "make personal criticism of the proper conduct of the council or of other elected members, officers of the council or members of the public".

Dr Strong said while it was fair to exclude criticism of individuals, the phrase "proper conduct of the council" was very wide and included all decisions and processes.

"Most people elect their local councillors because they want some changes or they want them to look over what's going on at the council and make sure it's on the right path," she said.

Mr Dalton said Napier City Council's code of conduct was "toughened up" over 10 years ago during a period when the council "almost became dysfunctional" due to infighting between councillors.

"There were councillors on the council at that stage who spent more time attacking each other than they did working for the city. The whole idea was to be able to deal with that and in fact the voters of Napier dealt with it in the 2004 elections."

Mr Dalton said after a "substantial change" of councillors following the elections "the problem went away".

"Whilst the code of conduct may seem rather restrictive, frankly, with the way the councillors were behaving leading up to 2004, it was probably necessary.

"It certainly hasn't been necessary since and in my eight years on council there has been absolutely no need for the code of conduct to even be looked at."

Mr Dalton said he had no concerns that councillors might think they were gagged from speaking freely.

"I actually encourage all my councillors to speak out about issues," he said.

Dr Strong will presented her research findings at the Journalism Education Association of New Zealand Conference in Christchurch tomorrow.