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Concerns raised about email interception at Horowhenua District Council

Horowhenua District Council is under fire for its email blocking processes, affecting residents and politicians.

A council that intercepted and blocked politicians' emails engaged in "extremely high-risk" practices, a leaked report says.

The Horowhenua District Council practices were identified in a draft report by an internal auditor that has been leaked to media and members of the public. 

The report shows processes to block some emails going out and coming in, as well as a "blacklist" of external emailers. 

Emails from Horowhenua mayor Michael Feyen have been blocked by his council.

Emails from blocked addresses were intercepted to be screened by chief executive David Clapperton. He then chose to block emails, redirect them, or let them continue to their intended destinations.

Blocked email addresses include one for mayor Michael Feyen, an iwi representative, a ratepayers' association representative, a councillor, and a former councillor.

When Brendan Duffy was still mayor, he and Joann Ransom, former chief executive of the trust that runs the Te Takere library complex, were blocked from emailing each other.

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Horowhenua District Council chief executive David Clapperton, right, with former mayor Brendan Duffy, in 2014.

An email with questions from a Fairfax reporter to Feyen was among those reproduced in the report about blocking. 

It is not known when the practices started, but the report notes they were already in use in May 2015.

Council staff and Clapperton did not answer questions about the practices, but he said it was "necessary to protect my employees so they can carry out their roles safely without undue interference, inappropriate criticism, and racist slurs".

RNZ has obtained part of the internal audit done by the Horowhenua District Council in March this year that says email blocking is extremely high risk and immediate action is needed. The chief executive David Clapperton says the incomplete report has been sent for a peer review in the past few days.

A council communications staff member said the audit draft "was not up to standard", was not accepted by the council and would not be officially released. A review of it was being completed by KPMG, but it was not clear when this would be completed and a request for it was not answered. 

Mayor Michael Feyen said the interception was worrying and needed to be looked into thoroughly. He was also concerned the draft report was only released to him after months of "back and forth" with staff.

He did not know who leaked it, but said Clapperton had accused him of being the leak's source and demanded his resignation because of it. Clapperton did not respond to questions about this.

Feyen said he was told in his previous term that his emails to council staff would be vetted because of claims he had been disrespectful to them. He disputes any rudeness, and said he never dreamed the interception could also include emails to him, or emails to people or organisations outside the council.

Nothing happened when he reported the email system was glitchy, and in 2015 he began using a private email address for official correspondence because of "niggles" that something was not quite right. 

"I always worried about my emails, but I just thought it was a really crap [IT] system. It really upsets me that when I took time to put in hours of thought and time to send [emails, that they might not even get anywhere].

"I want a council that works transparently for the people, and in a transparent way. Why on earth would a CE and staff withhold a document like that from their mayor?"

Councillor Ross Campbell is on the blacklist, and also did not believe he had previously been disrespectful in emails. It was possible hundreds of people's emails had been intercepted, he said. 

Residents had told him they felt the interception was both a breach of trust and an invasion of privacy, and he questioned its legality. 

His wife Janette Campbell represents several community organisations in Shannon, and was furious to learn from the draft report that her emails had been blocked, he said.  

 The council claimed in a media release that when an email was blocked an automatic reply would bounce back to senders, telling them the email was redirected. However, Campbell said he and his wife had never received this. 

Finance, audit and risk sub-committee chairman Philip Jones, who is not a councillor, said the release of the draft report had the potential to expose "ratepayers of Horowhenua to additional risk, including possible legal action".  

Deputy mayor Wayne Bishop said he had not read the draft report, but planned to read the KPMG version.

"It's not right for us to comment until we read the final report."

A spokeswoman for the Office of the Ombudsman said the Chief Ombudsman planned to seek more information from  the council to determine if the issue warranted a formal investigation. 

 

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