Coun­cil­lors face gag on com­ments

The West Australian - - NEWS - • • • • Paul Mur­ray

WA’s lo­cal gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties have started adopt­ing a new so­cial me­dia and com­mu­ni­ca­tions pol­icy that seeks to cen­sor coun­cil­lors’ crit­i­cal com­ments made in pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions or emails.

The new pol­icy, de­signed by the WA Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment As­so­ci­a­tion, warns coun­cil­lors to be care­ful about their per­sonal or pri­vate com­ments be­cause they might un­in­ten­tion­ally be­come pub­lic.

“Coun­cil mem­ber com­ments which be­come pub­lic and breach the Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment (Rules of Con­duct) Reg­u­la­tions 2007 may con­sti­tute a se­ri­ous breach of the Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment Act 1995 and may be re­ferred for in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” the model pol­icy says.

It warns coun­cil­lors that their pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions should:

Avoid dam­age to the rep­u­ta­tion of the lo­cal gov­ern­ment.

Not re­flect ad­versely on a de­ci­sion of the coun­cil.

Not re­flect ad­versely on the char­ac­ter or ac­tions of an­other coun­cil mem­ber or em­ployee.

Main­tain a re­spect­ful and pos­i­tive tone and not use of­fen­sive or ob­jec­tion­able ex­pres­sions in ref­er­ence to any coun­cil mem­ber, em­ployee or com­mu­nity mem­ber.

WALGA de­vel­oped the pol­icy in Oc­to­ber and coun­cils have quickly started adopt­ing it.

“Per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tions and state­ments made pri­vately, in con­ver­sa­tion, writ­ten, recorded emailed, texted or posted in per­sonal so­cial me­dia have the po­ten­tial to be made pub­lic, whether in­tended or not,” the pol­icy says.

“On the ba­sis that per­sonal or pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions may be shared or be­come pub­lic at some point in the fu­ture, coun­cil mem­bers should en­sure that their per­sonal or pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions do not breach the re­quire­ments of this pol­icy, the Code of Con­duct and the Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment (Rules of Con­duct) Reg­u­la­tions 2007.”

WALGA pres­i­dent Lynne Craigie said its com­mu­ni­ca­tions pol­icy sought to as­sist its mem­bers in un­der­stand­ing their com­mu­ni­ca­tions re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and many of the re­quire­ments were al­ready part of the Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment Act and Rules of Con­duct.

“Many cases be­ing con­sid­ered by the Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment Stan­dards Panel are based upon the mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of ap­pro­pri­ate com­mu­ni­ca­tions by elected mem­bers,” she said.

“The pol­icy pro­vides no in­ten­tion to cen­sor or re­strict free­dom of speech.”

Capel Shire coun­cil­lor Michael South­well, who has been taken to the lo­cal gov­ern­ment stan­dards panel by his chief ex­ec­u­tive and pres­i­dent for crit­i­cal com­ments, was the only dis­sent­ing vote when the pol­icy was adopted last month.

Cr South­well told the coun­cil the pol­icy was some­thing the Stasi in East Ger­many would have been proud of dur­ing the 50s.

“I can’t un­der­stand why be­ing elected to rep­re­sent your com­mu­nity sud­denly means you are de­prived of the right to free speech,” Cr South­well said on his Face­book page.

The warn­ings about so­cial me­dia are taken even fur­ther in a WALGA guide­lines doc­u­ment for coun­cil­lors which lists “risk fac­tors” in what can be said pub­licly and pri­vately.

“Pub­licly crit­i­cis­ing the work, the ad­min­is­tra­tion, the coun­cil, coun­cil mem­bers, em­ploy­ees or con­trac­tors of your lo­cal gov­ern­ment is al­most al­ways go­ing to be seen as a breach of the Rules of Con­duct,” it says.

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