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Local governments are workplaces, too (Image: Tina Tiller)

Local Elections 2022August 19, 2022

Toxic political workplaces are in local councils too

4 sillhouetted people wander towards a spooky looking boardroom
Local governments are workplaces, too (Image: Tina Tiller)

With almost half its members leaving at the end of this term, Nelson City Council is beset by frustration and in-fighting. Departing members say it highlights the need for urgent reform to the way conflict is handled in local government.

When Gaurav Sharma first alleged bullying in parliament last week, it drew a renewed spotlight to the way political halls of power are workplaces, and often dysfunctional ones.

But the impact of troubled interpersonal relationships on decision makers isn’t confined to national politics – it’s a frequent concern for those in local bodies as well. “You watch Question Time and it’s really intense, it’s really personal – and the way that the central government does politics has really flowed into local body politics, so that personal denigration and name calling are expected behaviours,” said Penny Hulse, former deputy mayor of Auckland and current member of the panel for the Future of Local Government Review.

A recent survey by Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) found that nearly half of surveyed elected members say they have experienced harassment or derogatory behaviours in their roles; nearly a quarter of respondents did not know how to report harassment or discrimination; and less than a third felt connected to other elected members in their workplace. 

“The survey results make for tough reading, but to shift the dial, we need to start with acknowledging that there is a problem and find ways to address it,” said LGNZ president Stuart Crosby in a statement. 

empty debate chamber parliament nz
Workplace disputes in central government are also found in local politics (Photo:

The Nelson experience

Nelson City Council, where six of 13 current elected members are leaving at the end of this term, exemplifies how the working environment can impact a council’s ability to deliver services and respond to the communities who elected them. In the last four years, one Nelson councillor has pushed an elderly protester over, another councillor verbally abused fellow elected members after funding to a wildlife centre run by his wife was reduced, and, most recently, a councillor filed a Human Rights Council complaint over treatment at the Council table. Nelson residents rate council performance the worst in decades. 

The Spinoff spoke to some of Nelson’s elected members to understand how the working environment at council has affected their mahi and how the instrument of the council’s code of conduct could change it. 

It’s a sense of constant frustration and an unpleasant workplace that has prompted Kate Fulton, a four-term Nelson councillor, to step down at this election. She detailed some of her frustrations to a Stuff reporter in June, saying that women leaders and others from marginalised backgrounds continue to face challenges in local government. 

“You are constantly tripped up by the system,” said Fulton. She has filed a formal complaint with the council to address a relationship with a particular staff member. “I asked for a reconciliation meeting [when I filed the complaint] nearly a year ago,” she said. “It’s now August and I’ve had one conversation with the investigator all year, plus nothing has changed internally.” 

Fulton found that relationships with other elected members could be excessively combative. “I’ve felt publicly shamed and humiliated by fellow councillors,” she said. “I’ve been told you need a thick skin – but you shouldn’t need a thick skin to be a community leader.”

According to Penny Hulse, this kind of experience is common across local government. “A minority of elected members think politics is gladiatorial,” she said. “It’s about the fight, about the battle, about winning at all costs.”

When local government workplaces are adversarial, they’re inevitably less effective, Fulton said. As she reflects on her time at NCC, she said that “we could have done so much more if people came into the room with heart and with empathy and compassion and the ability to put themselves in the other people’s shoes… I certainly feel that I’m stepping away because it’s not good for my mental or physical health to stay.” She’s felt well supported by Rachel Reese, Nelson’s mayor, but not by all of her fellow elected members. 

Fulton isn’t the only elected member who feels that the council chamber is a hostile space. Yvonne Bowater, another Nelson councillor leaving at the end of this term, stepped down from a position as the deputy chair of the community and recreation committee in June because she felt “marginalised” by the chair of the committee. “Unfortunately, I feel that I did not have the confidence of the chair and my fellow deputy chair, so this eroded my opportunities and ability to serve the community and bring their voice into discussions,” she said in a statement.

Nelson’s Civic House, where the city council is based (Photo: RNZ/Samantha Gee)

“There have been clear efforts to organise around to prevent things coming to the table or to shut down robust discussion,” said Nelson councillor Rohan O’Neill-Stevens. They said that despite some “great wins” a lot of their first term at council has involved navigating a “quite toxic working culture”.

“I remember being quite shocked at the level of openness with which councillors shared sexist and homophobic views when I was first elected,” they said.

Matt Lawrey, another councillor who is now running for mayor, stated in a recent newspaper ad that if elected he would “go out of my way to reduce the chances of elected members being publicly humiliated… I’ve seen elected reps who have been humiliated make decisions that have hurt them and hurt the Council.” 

Fulton and O’Neill-Stevens agree. “Most of the issues that come up stem from people feeling unheard or not feeling respected around the table,” said O’Neill-Stevens. That politicians elected to be a voice for their community aren’t listened to is a systemic problem, Fulton said. “I felt that my voice wasn’t valued because it isn’t representative of the voice that thrives in this power system.” 

boats sitting in nelson harbour
Nelson’s City Council is doing important work, but it can be a difficult workplace, say councillors. Image: Marty Melville/AFP via Getty Images)

Codes of engagement

Expectations for behaviour of elected members within a council are governed by the council’s code of conduct, a document that elected members agree to at the beginning of a term. According to LGNZ – which has a template for codes of conduct that a given council or local board adapts for their use – the purpose of the document is to “set out the standards of behaviour expected from elected members in the exercise of their duties”, in interactions between each other, council staff, media, and the general public. 

When elected members behave badly towards each other or staff, the code of conduct lays out the mechanism for responding to disputes via a complaints process. 

A recent case involving Nelson councillor Rachel Sanson demonstrates how the process exacerbates division. Sanson was issued a letter of censure for breaches to the code of conduct around behaviour in meetings and towards staff that undermined confidence in council process. In an article on her campaign website, Sanson rebuts these claims, saying that her requests for mediation with Nelson’s mayor and mentoring support were ignored, and that claims of her challenging staff have been misinterpreted. Sanson has issued a complaint about the code of conduct process via the Human Rights Commission (HRC), and says Nelson City Council has declined to participate in mediation through the HRC. 

Multiple Nelson City Councillors that The Spinoff spoke to agreed that the code of conduct wasn’t fit for purpose, and often ended up escalating trouble in relationships. “Code of conduct [complaints] are a fraught and unfair process,” said Fulton, who went through the lengthy process in a previous term, and did not receive an apology or a resolution.

“Everything should go through mediation before a code of conduct process begins,” said Lawrey. O’Neill-Stevens agrees, saying that lengthy investigations are an expensive process requiring an internal investigator, and often don’t resolve the underlying cause of a problem. “We should start with taking a step back and understand what’s driving [a complaint]” they told The Spinoff. 

When contacted regarding the role of the code of conduct for elected members at Nelson City Council, Mayor Rachel Reese pointed The Spinoff to how the council had reformed the code of conduct last year to more closely align with the LGNZ model code, saying that a series of different responses can be applied to resolving disputes, “from parties sorting out issues between themselves, seeking the Mayor’s assistance to resolve matters that have arisen, through to more substantive investigations for serious complaints…. All of these scenarios have at some point arisen at NCC.” 

With regard to councillor concerns about the impact of complaints on the relationships between councillors and staff, Pat Dougherty, Nelson City Council’s chief executive, said “Nelson City Council takes its responsibility under the Local Government Act to be a good employer very seriously, and as Chief Executive it is ultimately my responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of employees.” 

He added that there are “two sides to every story” regarding code of conduct complaints, and noted that there is a power imbalance between staff members and elected members, as it is easier for elected members to speak publicly. “It is important to remember that council staff are there to implement the resolutions of council – this ensures it’s the decisions of the majority that are actioned, rather than the wishes of individuals. While this can be frustrating to elected members who don’t feel like they are making change, it is the only way to ensure the democratic process is upheld,” he said.

nelson council building
Councillors are unhappy with code of conduct processes at Nelson City Council (Photo: RNZ/ Tracy Neal)

The future of local government as a workplace

The issue is hardly unique to Nelson; across New Zealand, councils are notoriously dysfunctional, although some are certainly worse than others. In 2020, in a high-profile example, chronic infighting and mismanagement led to Tauranga’s elected council being replaced by government-appointed commissioners until 2024

The reputation of local government may be part of the reason some races have one or no contestants, repelling capable people who are invested in their communities from running to be elected. Part of this is the peculiar nature of an elected politician’s job: councillors, like MPs, are elected by the public, and ultimately paid by ratepayers – and when there are workplace issues, ‘the public’ is a nebulous boss, not always responsive to the day to day difficulties you may have with colleagues.

To get more “people who have heart for community and passion and energy” into local government, some things need to change, Hulse said: potential candidates “would like decent remuneration, a good working environment, counselling support, HR support, Kiwisaver, and childcare.” 

The Future for Local Government panel Hulse is a member of will be releasing its draft report in October, which will likely include some changes to workplace conditions in local government, as well the broader context of local government responsibilities changing with Three Waters and RMA reforms, in addition to population growth and climate change. 

But the changes that the panel recommends will take years to be implemented, and communities need effective councils and elected members in the meantime. Local Government New Zealand, the association of all local bodies, says that their onboarding and training processes are being revised for incoming councillors elected at the upcoming elections, as well as revising their model code of conduct. 

Promoting a healthy working culture “starts with a strong induction programme which is as much about culture as it is about giving our new mayors the skills they need to do their job,” said Chief Executive of LGNZ, Susan Freeman-Greene, in an email to The Spinoff.

“We are also currently exploring options of how to meet the needs of elected members who are directly looking for advice on what to do if they feel bullied or harassed. Ultimately, we’re all responsible for making sure our workplaces and communities are safe spaces where everyone gets the chance to contribute,” she added. 

It is “heartbreaking” to see effective local leaders leave because of a lack of support, said Hulse. The change that is coming to the local government sector will be vital for improving workplaces for elected members, staff – and the communities they serve. “No one does their best work when they feel bullied or ground down, when they feel frightened.”

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