Councillors stand by under-fire chief executive embroiled in email snooping revelations

Horowhenua District Council chief executive David Clapperton, left, at the swearing-in ceremony of mayor Michael Feyen ...
MURRAY WILSON/STUFF

Horowhenua District Council chief executive David Clapperton, left, at the swearing-in ceremony of mayor Michael Feyen last year. Relations are now seriously strained.

Horowhenua councillors are backing embattled council chief executive David Clapperton amid scrutiny of him snooping on emails.

Deputy mayor Wayne Bishop has responded to the council's latest tumult  by calling for mayor Michael Feyen's head, arguing he is to blame for the organisation's troubles.

But critics, including people who had their emails intercepted or blocked by Clapperton, said he had interfered in the democratic process, calling his behaviour "paranoid" and a breach of trust.

Horowhenua deputy mayor Wayne Bishop is blaming the council's struggles on mayor Michael Feyen.
DAVID UNWIN/STUFF

Horowhenua deputy mayor Wayne Bishop is blaming the council's struggles on mayor Michael Feyen.

An internal draft audit leaked to media reveals the council boss blocked some email addresses and then screened emails sent to staff, as well as elected members. The conduct was labelled "extremely high risk", but the council says the draft is incomplete, "not up to standard" and should not have been made public.

READ MORE:
Concerns raised about email interception at Horowhenua District Council

* Editorial: Clapperton's position is untenable

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

In a statement, Bishop said nine out of 10 councillors reiterated their support for Clapperton, who had "repeatedly offered olive branches to work with and support the mayor". 

"My colleagues and I are only too well aware of the stress and strain council officers have been under during this triennium and, sadly, we expect it to continue under the current mayor's regime. Is it time for a by-election?"

On Tuesday, Bishop said the suggestion of a by-election was in reaction to what "a lot of people" were saying.

Time that senior management had spent on issues such as leaked reports could be better used on improving the district, he said. 

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Councillor Victoria Kaye-Simmons said Feyen should have been aware as early as 2015 that some emails were being blocked as all councillors were copied into an email notification from Clapperton. 

Emails were being checked because of inappropriate and abusive content, Kaye-Simmons said. 

She supported Clapperton's move as she did not think council staff should have to cop abuse. 

Kaye-Simmons added that she "wouldn't mind" if Feyen resigned.

"I do think the mayor's doing a crappy job." 

Dr Catherine Strong, a former reporter and academic who specialises in freedom of speech, said censoring an elected politician's emails was "horrendous". 

"It slashes across the democratic tenet that councillors represent their community, not the district council corporation."

Council staff, especially CEOs, were known to share policies and procedures between different councils, so the "elephant in the room" now was how widespread the practice was, she said.

Feyen said he was relieved the emails controversy was now out in the open, and calling for a by-election would allow councillors to "sweep things under the carpet".

Cr Ross Brannigan said he did not think Feyen had the majority of the public behind him and the draft report should not be debated until it has been peer-reviewed. 

The report lists an email belonging to Ngati Whakatere spokesman Robert Ketu as among those blocked.

This was news to him, but if true he said it seriously undermined the council's relationship with iwi.

"That's shocking because I represent eight other hapu of Ngati Raukawa around the issues of cleanup of the Manawatu River, and we've had meetings with these people about issues like the Shannon Wastewater Treatment Plant. 

"What it means for me is that all this process of good faith and trust and honouring the Treaty of Waitangi has been breached, and we want some answers. I'm blown away."

Former chairwoman of the Ratepayers and Residents' Association Christine Toms' email is another listed as blocked. She said the practice was "paranoid behaviour".

Some blocked email addresses belonged to people involved in Feyen's election campaign, and another to a vocal supporter. 

"If we knew that these emails were intercepted, we wouldn't have continued to email [the] council," Toms said. 

"It's brought the Horowhenua District Council into reputational harm. It's done damage to the organisation. [Clapperton's] got to go."

Former mayor Brendan Duffy said he was aware to some degree of email blocking carried out by Clapperton during his term, but had not seen any offensive emails that prompted these decisions. 

"They were bad enough for the CEO to take action. I entirely support a CEO protecting his organisation as he saw fit." 

 

 - Stuff

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