Michael Laws investigated for comments about Otago Regional Council staff

Media comments about council staff have landed Otago Regional Council deputy chairman Michael Laws under investigation and could mean he loses his leadership role.

A code of conduct complaint against the former broadcaster was lodged by council chief executive Sarah Gardner on August 16 and an inquiry is ongoing into whether Laws breached the code.

Laws said the complaint was in regards to comments he made about council staff in two stories that ran in the Otago Daily Times in July of this year.

In a July 21 story on illegal dumping into the Clutha River he said it was “extraordinarily embarrassing” that the council had given advice to a company that it later took enforcement action against for dumping construction waste in the river.

He also said he was unhappy with a lack of transparency between council staff and councillors.

In a July 23 story about a report on public submissions on flow scenarios for the Manuherikia River, Laws said he was annoyed staff had released the report which he described as “bogus” and “crap”.

“It is in relationship to both those articles that the allegation of endangering regional council staff psychologically and physically has been made by the chief executive,” Laws said.

An independent investigation was ordered with Wellington lawyer Steph Dyhrberg selected to carry out the investigation.

Last night a council spokesperson said out of respect for process and natural justice, it would not be appropriate to comment at this point.

Laws said the potential consequences of the complaint were quite serious.

Punishments could include losing his deputy chairman role, being excluded from council committees, receiving a public censure from his council colleagues, or being barred from entering the council’s offices for a period.

“I think that would have a very chilling impact on freedom of speech and expression upon representatives being able to represent their constituents and also hold to account staff when errors and wrongdoing is done.”

He said he stood by the comments he made previously.

“I wouldn’t change a word, a comma, or a preposition.

“Everything that I said I believe, I believed and I now know to be true.”

He said it was his general view that codes of conduct were “stupid”, and restricted elected members from freely and robustly expressing their views and representing their constituents.

“I’ve always had that view. I had it as mayor when I was back in Whanganui and I was subject to a code of conduct investigation then, and I have the same view 15 years later.”

Laws said that staff already had sufficient protection through other legislation such as defamation laws, the Bill of Rights, and the Local Government Act.

Once the investigation is complete, a report will be presented to the council and be discussed at a future council meeting.

Council chairman Andrew Noone confirmed there was an ongoing independent investigation into a code of conduct complaint, but declined to comment until the investigation was complete.

“You’ve got to respect natural justice here in terms of the parties so I can’t say any more than that but the process will be completed in the very near future and reported back to council.”

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