Part 3: Substance of codes

Local authority codes of conduct.

In this Part, we discuss the substantive principles, rules, and guidance contained in codes. (Part 4 discusses the provisions of codes relating to complaints and enforcement.)

We examined the codes of all 85 councils, to see what their contents typically comprise.

Codes are both aspirational and regulatory. They contain a mixture of principles and rules. They –

… serve a variety of purposes – to encourage right conduct in the administrative sphere of government; to provide a standard by which official conduct may be judged; to highlight statutory obligations; to emphasise the importance of a particular role (such as an elected official in a representative, democratic, political context); to provide for recourse and penalty for breaches of standards or regulations; and to promote a sense of purpose and obligation. … They are usually a mixture of legal requirements, constitutional principles, conventions, principles, and ethical values and standards.1

About half of the councils appear to have based their code almost entirely on the model code (see paragraph 2.21). Most of the remainder used parts of the model code, and combined it with additional or rewritten material in several specific areas.

Requirements of the Act

Much of the content of codes is left to the discretion of each council. However, there are some minimum requirements specified by the Act. We were particularly interested to see whether codes comply with the requirements of the Act.

In general, the vast majority of codes comply with the requirements of the Act.

Two codes were particularly brief, and in our view fall well short of the requirements of the Act.2 We have written to those councils, recommending that they review the contents of their code.

Understandings and expectations about conduct

The Act requires codes to set out understandings and expectations adopted by the council about the manner in which members may conduct themselves while acting in their capacity as members.3 In particular, this must include material relating to members’ behaviour toward one another, staff, and the public.4 We found that:

  • 82 codes address members’ behaviour towards other members;
  • all 85 codes address members’ behaviour towards staff; and
  • 84 codes address members’ behaviour towards the public.

The model code sets out some standards of behaviour applying to members’ relationships with each other, staff, and the community. These standards focus on such things as teamwork, honesty, courtesy, respect, and focusing on issues (rather than personalities). Among other things, they emphasise the need to remember that the chief executive is responsible for the employment of staff, and the need not to do or say things that may compromise the council’s obligations to act as a “good employer” towards its staff (for instance, by publicly criticising a staff member). Most codes have material covering these sorts of matters, usually based on the model code. Some councils have rewritten or added to the matters covered in the model code.

Codes must also include material relating to the disclosure of information.5 We found that 84 codes do so.

The model code contains provisions emphasising the need to refrain from inappropriately disclosing or using confidential information that members receive in the course of carrying out their official duties. Most councils used this as the basis for their material about the use and disclosure of information.

Explanation of applicable laws

Codes must include a general explanation of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 (LGOIMA).6 We found that 76 codes do so.

Those councils that have not included an explanation in their code all have material in their governance statement that addresses the requirements of the LGOIMA. Although the Act technically requires such information to be in the code, those councils presumably felt it unnecessary to duplicate that information.

Many of the councils that have included material about the LGOIMA have used the suggested description from the model code. The model code’s description does not address the official information aspects of the LGOIMA at all, but mentions only meetings, and then only to the extent of dealing with the behaviour of members in meetings. The model code does not explain matters such as the procedural requirements for meetings; nor the presumption of conducting meetings in public and the grounds for meeting in private. In our view, this does not meet the Act’s requirement for a “general explanation” of the LGOIMA. Some councils drafted their own fuller descriptions of the LGOIMA.

As well as an explanation of the LGOIMA, codes must also include a general explanation of “any other enactment or rule of law” applicable to members.7 We found that 80 codes include material about other laws.

The other statutes most often covered are the Local Authorities (Members’ Interests) Act 1968, Secret Commissions Act 1910, Crimes Act 1961, and Securities Act 1978. Most councils used the material from the model code about these statutes. Some rewrote and expanded the material about the Local Authorities (Members’ Interests) Act.

Other statutes sometimes mentioned include the Local Government Acts 1974 and 2002; Resource Management Act 1991; Privacy Act 1993; Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992; and Public Audit Act 2001.8 We consider that some extracts from the Local Government Act 2002 that are especially relevant to members may be particularly useful.9

In local government, financial conflicts of interest are governed primarily by the provisions of the Local Authorities (Members’ Interests) Act, but non-financial conflicts of interest are governed by the common law rule about bias.10 We expected non-financial conflicts of interest (as a rule of law – albeit non-statutory – that applies to members) to be explained in codes. Eighty-four of the 85 codes discuss the statutory rules about financial conflicts of interest (and the consequences for breaching them). However, only 25 codes contain what we consider to be a useful discussion of non-financial conflicts of interest (and some of these councils appear to have written their own material about this). Forty-nine codes contain a brief reference to non-financial conflicts of interest, without explaining the concept, and 11 do not mention non-financial conflicts of interest at all. We expected that most would explain both types of conflicts of interest, but were disappointed to find that many had not.11


The Act requires councils, when adopting a code, to consider whether to require a member to declare whether or not they are an undischarged bankrupt (although the council’s decision need not be mentioned in the code).12 We found that:

  • 63 codes require such a declaration; and
  • 22 do not.

Other matters covered in codes

There were several other key topics that we expected codes to commonly provide guidance about. They are:

  • general public sector ethical and/or governance principles;
  • roles and responsibilities of members;
  • decision-making principles and processes;
  • dealing with the news media;
  • gifts, hospitality and expenses; and
  • use of a council’s resources and facilities.

Most codes address all of these matters.

Seventy-six codes include a set of general high-level principles, as a guide to good public sector governance and ethics. Most codes adopt the principles in the model code. In summary, these are:

  • public interest;
  • honesty and integrity;
  • objectivity;
  • accountability;
  • openness;
  • personal judgement;
  • respect for others;
  • duty to uphold the law;
  • stewardship; and
  • leadership.

Where a council has varied these, it is often to give extra weight to the concept of collective responsibility for decisions, or to emphasise that members have a duty to the public, district or region as a whole (rather than simply their own ward or community, or other sectoral interests that a member may feel they represent).13

Seventy-five codes have material describing the different roles and responsibilities of:

  • the mayor;
  • the deputy mayor;
  • committee chairs;
  • ordinary members; and
  • the chief executive.

This is often based on material in the model code, although some councils have rewritten or added to it. Common variants include extra material on:

  • the distinction between governance and management functions;
  • the role of staff;
  • what members should expect from policy advice;
  • protocols for contact with staff; and
  • the role of councillors who also sit on community boards.

Decision-making principles and processes are dealt with in 71 codes. Such provisions explain how councils go about making decisions. They sometimes refer to:

  • principles and processes prescribed by the Act;
  • meeting procedures;
  • the need to be prepared and informed for meetings;
  • the desirability of members operating as a team;
  • working openly and taking collective responsibility for decisions;
  • the importance and process of consultation; and
  • formal delegations.

Dealing with the news media is covered in 81 codes. Such provisions frequently emphasise that generally only the mayor (or chief executive or other officially designated spokesperson) may speak publicly for the council, but that ordinary members are free to express a personal view to the media (or in some other public forum) so long as they do not state or imply that their views represent the council (and so long as they do not disclose confidential information or compromise the impartiality or integrity of staff). Some codes cover correct ways for seeking to make information public.

Gifts, hospitality and expenses are addressed in 72 codes. These provisions commonly require members to disclose the receipt of gifts over a certain value, and to claim for only legitimate expenses (and some prescribe detailed rules and processes for expenses, reimbursement, fees and allowances). Some set out expectations about the acceptance of hospitality.

Use of a council’s resources and facilities is covered in 71 codes. These provisions typically require members to refrain from using the council’s resources for personal business. Some also prescribe limits to the use of the council’s support services, equipment and buildings.

In addition to the topics above, which are commonly addressed, some councils have added other topics. The range varies widely. It is clear that some councils have given a great deal of thought to addressing those issues that are important to them. They include discussion of such things as:

  • registers of members’ interests;
  • compliance with standing orders;
  • appointments to other bodies;
  • civic duties;
  • internal communications;
  • dress standards;
  • guidance for conducting quasi-judicial hearings;
  • defamation;
  • responding to queries involving potential council legal liability and insurance claims;
  • advertising and publicity;
  • pre-election communications;
  • use of letterhead and titles;
  • training, conferences and induction; and
  • how to raise operational concerns with council staff.

One code appears to impose various obligations on the chief executive and other staff. Generally, we expect that councils will have separate codes of conduct for staff (although they are not often referred to in the codes of conduct for members). In addition, some councils include a section setting standards about the “quality of policy advice”, which also seems out of place because it appears to be addressed mainly to staff.

Some councils that added significant extra material going beyond the model code include:

  • Auckland, Southland and Waikato Regional Councils;
  • Christchurch, Hutt, Manukau and Porirua City Councils; and
  • Kapiti Coast; Ruapehu, South Waikato, Tasman, Waitomo, Western Bay of Plenty and Whakatane District Councils (see also paragraph 6.9).

The codes prepared by these councils may contain some useful ideas for other councils when reviewing their own codes.14

Our conclusions

Overall, the material included in codes meets our expectations. Most codes contain guidance about the main topics we expected to see covered.

The councils we met with told us that the contents of their codes had not been regarded as particularly contentious when they developed them. Many considered the contents of codes to be “common sense”.

Most councils used the model code as their starting point. It is clear that councils have also copied from each other a great deal.

Codes are well focused on the activities, issues and practices of concern to local government. The length and depth of codes varies a lot, but in general we consider that the material in codes is:

  • clear and informative;
  • consistent with the governance principles in section 39 of the Act; and
  • not inconsistent with other laws.

No council’s code covers all of the topics mentioned in this Part. We consider that most councils could benefit from a review of those topics, to see whether there are any other matters that could usefully be added to their own code when they next review it. There may be scope for codes to contain more cross-references to further sources of guidance about particular regulatory, policy or good practice matters (both internal and external).15 We also consider that some codes could be more thorough in their explanations of:

  • the LGOIMA; and
  • non-financial conflicts of interest.

1: Reid, Mike and Hicks, Colin, March 2006, Councillor conduct: Is the code of conduct working for local government?, unpublished paper presented to LexisNexis 5th Annual Local Government Legal Forum, pages 4, 6.

2: One covers only a few of the Act’s requirements, and the other does little more than repeat the wording of clause 15 of Schedule 7.

3: Clause 15(2)(a) of Schedule 7.

4: Clause 15(2)(a)(i).

5: Clause 15(2)(a)(ii).

6: Clause 15(2)(b)(i).

7: Clause 15(2)(b)(ii).

8: Some also included references to provisions in the Public Finance Acts 1977 and 1989 that have been repealed.

9: Such as, for instance, the provisions about personal liability in sections 44-46 of the Act.

10: A person who exercises powers that can affect the rights and interests of others may be subject to the common law rule about bias. If a decision is tainted with bias, the courts may declare it to be invalid. The current judicial expressions of the test for bias are “Is there, to a reasonable, fair-minded and informed observer, a real danger of bias on the part of a member of the decision-making body, in the sense that he or she might unfairly regard with favour (or disfavour) the case of a party to the issue under consideration?” and “Would the reasonable, informed observer think that the impartiality of the decision-maker might have been affected?”

11: There is no shortage of useful information available on this topic. Those councils that did address the topic frequently did so thoroughly. We have also issued guidance about this topic in our 2004 publication Conflicts of interest - A guide to the Local Authorities (Members’ Interests) Act 1968 and non-pecuniary conflicts of interest.

12: Clause 15(5) of Schedule 7.

13: Some codes make particular reference to the declaration made by members on taking office, which refers to executing and performing their powers, authorities and duties “in the best interests of” their district or region – see clause 14(3) of Schedule 7.

14: We note that, because of the high degree of copying between councils, we do not know whether the material in these councils’ codes originates from them or from another source.

15: For example, councils may have separate policies about matters like the use of e-mail and computers, contact with staff, official information, delegations, and fees and expenses. Agencies such as the DIA, LGNZ, and the Office of the Auditor-General may have more detailed guidance about various other matters touched on in codes.

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