By Robin Martin of RNZ

The chairman of Taranaki Regional Council is under fire for appearing in ads promoting the council's achievements just before the local body elections.

A rival candidate has complained to the Auditor-General, claiming the publicity gave David MacLeod an unfair advantage.

Mr MacLeod claimed one of the three South Taranaki seats - sneaking in just 132 votes ahead of Ohawe builder Alan Murray.

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Mr Murray said the advertising breached the Auditor-General's guidelines about pre-election publicity. They say "a local authority must not promote, nor be perceived to promote, the re-election prospects of a sitting member".

"All the Taranaki papers were barraged with massive two-page articles on water quality and it was all with David MacLeod's photo and his name presenting the article more or less advertising him if you like as chairperson, which I believe is not kosher leading up to an election," Mr Murray said.

That advertising was followed in the week before the election by a four-page supplement on the council's annual report, including a long list of its achievements, again featuring an introduction from - and picture of - Mr MacLeod.

Mr Murray, who was making a third unsuccessful bid for a council seat, said he could not compete with that kind of coverage.

"The promotion of a elected representatives leading up to an election. Councils aren't supposed [to be] involved in that and of course here they've spent thousands of dollars. I don't know how much of course because no doubt they get a discount for the amount of newsprint they unitised, but there would be thousands and thousands of dollars spent on promoting David.

"The CEO could have presented this or no one could have presented the article because it was just information for the community. It was clearly promotional to me, clearly promotional of David."

David MacLeod said he was surprised to hear of the complaint and he did not think he had done anything wrong.

"Well I suppose as the head of the TRC the entity you are a face of the entity in many ways, but did it give me an unfair advantage? I'd have to interpret what that question is asking of me. Put it this way, I don't think I've done anything... I've definitely not done anything personally where I feel I've tried to get an unfair advantage from, that's for sure."

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Mr MacLeod said he signed off on the advertising material and gave it no more thought.

But council officers had been worried about pre-election publicity.

In an email to Alan Murray, council corporate services director Mike Nield said he had sought clarification from Local Government New Zealand about allowing the publication of annual reports including pictures and comments from elected members.

Mr Nield said he was told elected members' roles do not stop in the pre-election period. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin
Mr Nield said he was told elected members' roles do not stop in the pre-election period. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Mr Nield said he was told elected members' roles do not stop in the pre-election period and that they should be able to fulfil their "business as usual" duties on behalf of the council up to polling day".

"On this basis, the council will continue to communicate with the community on important issues and will continue to use the council leaders and spokespersons to communicate matters of council business to the public."

Mr Nield would not say whether he thought that was fair to aspiring councillors.

And all councils interpreted Local Government New Zealand's advice in the same way.

New Plymouth District Council chief executive Craig Stevenson said elected members had to tread very carefully.

"The Office of the Auditor General's guidelines are quick to point out that the day-to-day business of council continues. They mayor still has a roll as the titular head of the organisation. They just have to be very careful about what they are saying and how they are saying it."

For that reason Mr Stevenson fronted coverage of New Plymouth's annual report rather than the mayor, Neil Holdom.

"Exactly. That's a very good example and you'll find many councils do that. The chief executive becomes the spokesperson in that three-month period [before an election] to avoid any suggestion of bias and that the mayor is using those kinds of statement as electioneering."

The Office of the Auditor-General confirmed it received a complaint about the Taranaki Regional Council election and said it was considering the matter.