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What elected members need to know

For most elected members it is mid-term. But the out-of-cycle election of members marking the return of Tauranga City Council from a Commission to fully elected Council in July this year has me thinking about the role and what it involves. By Linda O’Reilly, Special Counsel – Tompkins Wake.

Election candidates all receive information about the role from the councils they are standing for and more information by way of induction and orientation sessions after their election.

Indeed, a general explanation of certain statutory provisions is a mandatory requirement of the first meeting of a council following a triennial general election.

In addition, many elected members have vast experience and there is much to be learnt from one’s fellow members.

I often get asked to talk to elected members about the statutory and legal framework they operate within. Sometimes this is a generalised discussion as part of an induction process, or to assist councillors’ understanding of their role and responsibilities during their term of office. Other times it deals with more specific issues as they arise. Occasionally, it occurs when things are going pear-shaped. The information I provide is always consistent, but the extent to which it is absorbed tends to differ according to the timing and circumstances.

And of course while I may offer expertise, I am no oracle. As much as I can explain the general principles of, let us say, decision-making under the Local Government Act and the applicable case-law, I do not have the local insight or the burden of responsibility of an elected member. Black-letter law aside, legal advice is just that: advice. Legal opinions, however well-informed, are just opinions.

Even so, those elected to local authorities do need to acquire a working knowledge of some aspects of the law.

For example, the broad provisions and principles of the Local Government Act 2002, the planning and regulatory scope of the Resource Management Act 1991, and the constraints on their activities imposed by the Local Authorities (Members’ Interests Act) 1968.

Not least, they might want to be aware of the personal indemnity and liability provisions in Part 4 of the Local Government Act.

Unfortunately, the reality is that for most new members these are abstract concepts that are sometimes tedious and difficult to absorb in a training situation, no matter how lively the presentation. As a presenter in those situations it is a matter of making key concepts vivid enough to stick. It is quite a different story when the application of those provisions is at issue.

A simpler approach might be to emphasise the role of an elected member, which underlies all of their powers, duties, and responsibilities.

Before acting as a member of a local authority each elected member must declare that they will faithfully and impartially, and according to the best of their skill and judgment, execute and perform, in the best interests of their region or district, the powers, authorities, and duties vested in or imposed upon them under the Local Government Act 2002, the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, or any other Act.

Having made that declaration, an elected member is first and foremost a member of the governing body of the council and as such “is responsible and democratically accountable for the decision-making of the local authority.”

Underlying that decision-making there are principles and processes, but most important is the purpose of
local government. That purpose is to enable democratic local decision-making and promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities.

At least that is the purpose for the present time. It was changed by one former government and reinstated by another, so we shall have to wait and see if it survives.

The person elected as mayor of a territorial local authority has certain other specific roles and powers, as does the appointed chief executive.

There is a distinction between the governance role of elected members and the operational role of the chief executive that can take some time for new members to grasp and/or accept. It is important to understand that while a chief executive is responsible for implementing the decisions of the local authority, the employment and management of staff is a matter for the chief executive subject only to any policies that have been adopted in relation to staffing levels and remuneration.

Over time, with or without instruction, elected members become familiar with the provisions that govern their meetings and behaviour such as; standing orders; Part 7 of the Local Government Information and Meetings Act 1987; codes of conduct; and the sometimes-confusing differences between the rights of the public to official information and the requirement to protect personal privacy.

But, there are some individual realities that do not necessarily relate to legal provisions, but that may nevertheless lead to legal difficulties and challenges if not fully appreciated.

First and foremost, perhaps, is that individuals should not pursue election in the expectation of personal advantage. There is of course statutory provision for members’ remuneration, but beyond that obtaining any pecuniary advantage is an offence and bias or predetermination of any nature will put decision-making at risk of challenge.

Conflicts of interest must be declared. The illusion of power should also be discarded and replaced with the concept of influence. Decisions are made by the governing body as a team, not by individuals.

What an elected member does stand to gain is an insight into and influence over processes including future strategy for the region or district, and an enhanced acquaintance with a vast range of influencers and people who make things happen. There will also, hopefully, be a sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction of having performed a service to the community.

The down-side is likely to be a loss of personal privacy and down-time. Some elected members pursue other careers concurrently, but many do not. Being an effective member of almost any council is the equivalent of a full-time job. Thanks may also be in short supply.

Elected members come in all stripes, from every part of the political spectrum, and are motivated by a broad range of considerations. In my observation, success does not come from knowledge, cleverness, or experience, although those things are helpful.

Most needed are some personal characteristics that will sustain the journey:



•an open mind,

•willingness to learn,


•perception and


An elected member with these characteristics may not catch the world on fire, but they will have the tools to make a difference – without setting fire to the council edifice.

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