Part 11: Local authority communications in an election year

Local government: Results of the 2006/07 audits.

The 2007 local government elections were held on 13 October 2007. We received a number of complaints from ratepayers about expenditure by local authorities on communications before the elections.

The complaints included concerns that:

  • local authority resources had been used to promote the electoral prospects of candidates, in print advertising material and at events funded by the local authority;
  • local authority resources had been used to promote the existing policies or proposals that were contested by candidates; and
  • local authority staff had communicated in ways that favoured existing councillors and not in a balanced and neutral way.

The Auditor-General has a role in considering whether local authority resources are used appropriately. He has no role in regulating electoral conduct more generally or the activities of candidates. The electoral officer for each district is responsible for the administration of the elections. Our focus is on the use of local authority funds on communications in the pre-election period.1

In 2004, we published guidelines on good practice principles for public communications by local authorities.2 Our guidelines are not binding on local authorities, but we consulted with the local government sector when preparing the guidelines and got general agreement on their content and relevance.

The guidelines encourage local authorities to adopt their own standards and policies. They apply where:

  • the local authority meets the cost of the communication (wholly or in part); and
  • the person making the communication does so in an official capacity on behalf of the local authority or a community board.

The guidelines contain several principles relevant to communications in the pre-election period. They note that it is neither possible nor practicable to stop all communications during the pre-election period, and that routine council business must continue. It can require careful judgement to draw the line between ordinary and appropriate communication, and communication that could be seen as creating an electoral advantage.

The principles discussed in the guidelines as relevant in a pre-election period are that:

  • a local authority should not promote, nor be perceived to promote, the reelection prospects of members in a local authority-funded publication;
  • a local authority should exercise care in the use of its resources for communications that are presented in such a way that they raise, or could have the effect of raising, a member's personal profile in the community; and
  • a local authority's communications policy should recognise the risk that communications about members, in their capacities as spokespersons for the authority, during a pre-election period could result in the member achieving an electoral advantage at ratepayers' expense.

The guidelines state that photographs or information that may raise the profile of a member in the electorate should not be used during the pre-election period.

In 2004, we received complaints about the content of a local authority's summary of its annual report that was published and distributed in the period before the 2004 local authority elections. The concerns were that the summary was being used as a council-funded advertising opportunity for members who were standing for re-election. The summary included several photographs of members (about 25% of the content).

We wrote to all local authorities last year, asking that they take particular care with the content of their annual reports and summary annual reports published around the time of the 2007 elections. We were pleased that we did not receive any complaints about the content of the 2007 annual reports or summaries.

Concerns raised before the 2007 elections

In some cases, we referred people who raised concerns with us directly to the local authority concerned. This is in line with our general policy that people should raise concerns directly with the relevant public entity before they seek our intervention. We carried out more detailed work in considering a series of complaints, or complaints from more than one person about the same matter, about the actions of three local authorities. We outline these complaints, and our findings, below.

Using local authority resources to publish an “election supplement” in a community newspaper

A city council had an ongoing partnership agreement with a community centre that published a regular community newspaper. Council staff provided content for the newspaper, assisted with layout, design, and editing, and acted as the contact point for people in the community who submitted stories. The community newspaper published a four-page “election supplement” with its August 2007 edition.

The August edition, including the election supplement, was produced by a councillor standing for re-election. The supplement included paid advertising by some candidates for the election, and an advertisement from Grey Power, Federated Farmers, and a citizens' and ratepayers' association endorsing several regional council candidates standing on a “rates control” platform. It also included unattributed articles about the main issues for the city council and adverse comment about the regional council's performance in the areas of passenger transport and biosecurity.

Three regional councillors complained about the city council's resources being used to fund the election supplement. They were concerned that the supplement contained editorial content potentially damaging to the regional council's reputation through unattributed editorial opinion.

The city council staff were heavily involved in producing the general newspaper, but barely involved in producing the election supplement and not involved in its content. The city council had issued guidelines to all managers setting out a protocol to apply to all staff in the pre-election period. That protocol showed good understanding of the need for staff to maintain, and be seen to maintain, political neutrality. We were told that staff involved in the August edition operated in good faith. They assessed that their activities would be consistent with the guidelines if they limited their involvement to the normal production of the general newspaper.

In our view, this judgement did not give adequate weight to the risk of a perception of involvement in political activity. Outside observers would not see a material difference between the general paper and the election supplement, or be aware of the internal line that had been drawn. To an outside observer, council staff are the contact point for the paper and they collect and edit material for it. The paper included an election supplement that looked as if it had been produced as part of the overall newspaper. The fact that council staff were careful to ensure that they had no effective involvement in the electoral supplement was not visible to the public and therefore did not adequately manage the risk of a perception of political involvement.

This incident has highlighted a particular risk for local authorities when, as part of their ongoing activities, they support a community communication process where they do not control the content. The city council intends to take further steps to manage this risk in future, including more explicit advice to staff involved in such community communication activities.

Using local authority funds for events held close to the date of elections

A person was concerned about local authority funds being used for events held close to the date of elections. The concern raised was that the events would add to the profile of the mayor and existing councillors, and that publicity generated from the events would give them an electoral advantage. The events included opening ceremonies to celebrate the completion of capital projects. The cost of the opening events was around $25,000.

The local authority explained to us the nature of the projects and the timing of the opening events. The projects were part of ordinary council business and the opening events were timed for their completion, not the local government elections. In each case, the project was slightly behind schedule which meant the opening event was closer to the elections than had been planned. The largest event, associated with the airport refurbishment, was delayed and held after the elections.

The local authority told us that it had formally approved proceeding with the openings even though they had been delayed and were held closer to the elections than planned. We regarded the local authority's approach as reasonable and did not have any concerns.

Councillor columns and use of “mayor's funds”

We received several complaints about the use of local authority resources for written columns by mayors and councillors on council websites. We also received a complaint about council-funded advertising material acknowledging that community projects had been supported or funded by the mayor.

In several instances, we advised the complainants to raise the matter directly with the local authority concerned.

One local authority decided to suspend columns and comments by the mayor and councillors in the pre-election period. This was a prudent approach and was consistent with our guidelines.

We considered that the expenditure of local authority funds on promotional material for a new community facility, and crediting the mayor for support or funding, would have been a breach of our guidelines had it occurred in the pre-election period. However, because the advertising occurred before that period, we asked the local authority to take account of the concern in future communications.

Communications by local authority staff

We received several complaints about communications by staff of local authorities. In some cases, the communications were letters to the editor, where a local authority staff member's comments were perceived as favouring existing councillors or criticising the candidates. We referred these complaints to the local authority's chief executive.

We received several complaints about a chief executive's column in a local newspaper entitled “Results not Hype”. The chief executive had commented unfavourably on a rates cap proposal put forward by some candidates for election by saying “be careful what you wish for”. The comments also implied support for the current mayor by referring to “respected leadership”. The complainants were concerned that the chief executive had entered into the political arena by commenting on statements made by candidates, and this was not the role of a chief executive.

The chief executive's column was published free of charge by a local newspaper, so without the use of local authority resources. The mayor usually used the space provided for a column, but had suspended this during the election campaign to comply with the principles set out in our guidelines.

The column set out some information and comments about proposed rate increases in the currently adopted Long-Term Council Community Plan, in response to comments made by some candidates about capping rate rises.

Although no local authority resources were involved, the chief executive's column was still a formal communication on behalf of the local authority and the principles about neutrality were still relevant.

In assessing the comments in the “Results Not Hype” column, we considered in particular the title of the column, the comments about the rates cap proposal put forward by some candidates, and the “respected leadership” comment. As part of the routine business of local authority communication, we expected that any comment would be balanced and politically neutral.

We advised the chief executive and the complainants that we did not consider the column consistent with the good practice guidelines in three aspects – the title of the column, the comments relating to some candidates' rating policy, and the city's “respected leadership”. We considered these aspects, taken individually and collectively, risked being perceived as lacking balance and political neutrality.

Concluding comment

In the local government sector in particular, it is common for people to raise a wide range of concerns with the Auditor-General. We do not have a role in the general conduct of candidates during an election. These are often matters of political debate or are regulated by other organisations.

Our focus is confined to the use of local authority resources, whether financial or staff, in activities that may be seen as supporting one candidate over another.

We have been pleased to observe that the sector generally shows good awareness of the issues and the need for care in the pre-election period. The examples discussed here illustrate that judgements on what is appropriate can be finely balanced, and need to take account of public perception.

1: By "pre-election period", we mean the three months before the close of polling day.

2: Good Practice for Managing Public Communications by Local Authorities.

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