Across the country 2021 Long-Term Plans are moving into the formal phase of the engagement process and the hardy perennial of staff ‘rights’ to submit has been raised.
Our advice on these matters is based on the principles in our pre-election protocol. This can be found in Part One of the Taituarā Code of Good Practice for local elections.
Generally, staff have the same rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly as any other individual has. But the Courts have held that these rights are not unfettered and that obligations may override the Bill of Rights in some cases.
Staff should actively keep their professional and personal interests separate. Staff should avoid conduct that creates a real or perceived conflict of interest between personal views, and professional obligations to provide robust apolitical advice and effective implementation of council decisions.
An outright ban on staff submitting in the political process is unlikely to be consistent with the Bill of Rights Act. However, staff should avoid submitting on issues where they advise their council, or work in the affected area. For example, it is generally fine for a libraries manager to submit on the dog control policy or on water matters, but not on a level of service in the libraries area.
It is a fact of life that the potential for conflicts of interest of this nature increase for those in more senior roles. Conflicts may exist simply because staff work with elected members on a daily basis. Staff in those positions need to be extra careful.
There is case law to support this. During the 2013 elections, a Mayor’s PA signed a nomination form for the opposing candidate and was dismissed for doing so. The Employment Court held that the nature of the position was such that dismissal was an option available to a reasonable employer.
However, the Chief Executive concerned had authorised another council staff member to work for a council candidate. Further, the Court also held that some aspects of the disciplinary process were defective and found the claim of unjustified dismissal had been substantiated.
Lastly, if you feel the need to submit on an issue, and there is no conflict of interest, our advice is to let your manager know and, when submitting, be sure to be respectful.