Michael Laws investigated for comments about Otago Regional Council staff

Former broadcaster Michael Laws called a report by the Otago Regional Council “fake” and “shit”. Photo/Otago Daily Times, File

Media comments about council staff have led Otago Regional Council Deputy Chairman Michael Laws to come under investigation and could mean he loses his leadership role.

A code of conduct complaint against the former broadcaster was filed by the council’s chief executive, Sarah Gardner, on August 16 and an investigation is underway to determine whether Laws breached the code.

Laws said the complaint related to comments he made about council staff in two articles that appeared in the Otago Daily Times in July this year.

In a July 21 article about the illegal dumping in the River Clutha, he said it was ‘extraordinarily embarrassing’ that the council gave advice to a company which it then took enforcement action against for dumping waste building in the river.

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

In a July 23 post about a report on public submissions on Manuherikia River flow scenarios, Laws said he was annoyed that staff released the report which he called “false” and untrue. “Fuck”.

Sarah Gardner, Chief Executive of the Otago Regional Council.  Photo/Otago Daily Times, File
Sarah Gardner, Chief Executive of the Otago Regional Council. Photo/Otago Daily Times, File

“It is in relation to these two items that the allegation of psychological and physical endangerment of regional council staff was made by the chief executive,” Laws said.

An independent investigation was ordered and Wellington’s attorney, Steph Dyhrberg, was chosen to lead the investigation.

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

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

Penalties could include losing his role as vice president, expulsion from council committees, public censure of fellow council members, or being banned from entering council offices for a period of time.

“I think it would have a very chilling impact on freedom of speech and expression on the ability of representatives to represent their constituents and to hold staff to account when mistakes and wrongdoings are made.”

He said he stood by the comments he had made previously.

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

“Everything I said, I believe it, I believed it and now I know it’s true.”

Steph Dyhrberg.  Photo / Provided, File
Steph Dyhrberg. Photo / Provided, File

He said he believed codes of conduct were “dumb” and prevented elected officials from freely and vigorously expressing their opinions and representing their constituents.

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

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

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

Council Chairman Andrew Noone confirmed that an independent investigation was underway into a code of conduct complaint, but declined to comment until the investigation was complete.

“You have to respect natural justice here in relation to the parties, so I can’t say more, but the process will be completed in the very near future and sent back to council.”

Elna M. Lemons