Political horror in Horowhenua

Horowhenua mayor Michael Feyen is butting heads, once again, with chief executive David Clapperton.
DAVID UNWIN/STUFF

Horowhenua mayor Michael Feyen is butting heads, once again, with chief executive David Clapperton.

The latest clash between Horowhenua's mayor and his council comes as its chief executive is at the centre of controversy over intercepting emails. But this is just one of a host of issues the district has endured since Michael Feyen became mayor. Miri Schroeter and Grant Miller take a look back at Horowhenua District Council's recent disputes. 

He is a mayor all but alone within a building he doesn't trust.

Michael Feyen's relationship with his council's chief executive is in tatters and he is at loggerheads with nine out of 10 councillors. He remains sceptical about the safety of the building where he works. He has sometimes called on the Government to help him and it has generally stayed out of the fray.  

Horowhenua District councillor Ross Campbell is standing by mayor Michael Feyen.
WARWICK SMITH/STUFF

Horowhenua District councillor Ross Campbell is standing by mayor Michael Feyen.

Sometimes charismatic, and other times brooding or bewildered, Feyen is used to a scrap. Supporters outside of the Horowhenua District Council say he is up against an entrenched culture of autocratic leadership and management that is refusing to budge.

Horowhenua residents say consistently that their council should be getting on with running the district. Decisions have been made – such as selling pensioner flats – but they often do not come with the mayor's blessing.

READ MORE:
Horowhenua residents want the council to get on with the job 
Horowhenua CEO confirms interference with politicians' emails
Councillors stand by under-fire chief executive embroiled in email snooping revelations
Concerns raised about email interception at Horowhenua District Council
Editorial: Clapperton's position is untenable

Former Horowhenua mayor Brendan Duffy with current chief executive David Clapperton in 2014.
FAITH SUTHERLAND/STUFF

Former Horowhenua mayor Brendan Duffy with current chief executive David Clapperton in 2014.

Instead, there is conflict after conflict, much of it petty. Councillors have tried to limit Feyen's impact. The entire term so far has been acrimonious, but bitterness reached a high point last week.

Feyen said the council's chief executive David Clapperton screamed at him, demanding his resignation. He countered on Wednesday last week, calling for the chief executive to stand aside while email-interception practices at the council are investigated.

Those practices involved Clapperton screening emails from anybody on a "blacklist". He has asserted his right to protect staff from abuse, but an internal draft audit leaked to media notes emails that were not abusive were intercepted as well. And some emails not even sent to council staff were intercepted by the chief executive, including some between Horowhenua residents and councillors.

Horowhenua deputy mayor Wayne Bishop is one of nine councillors supporting the chief executive, who has been ...
DAVID UNWIN/STUFF

Horowhenua deputy mayor Wayne Bishop is one of nine councillors supporting the chief executive, who has been intercepting emails.

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Feyen was on the "blacklist", but he is not at the centre of the emails controversy. Even so, deputy mayor Wayne Bishop last week floated the idea of a mayoral by-election.

"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," Bishop said. 

"Is it time for a by-election?"

The background to all of this is that the politics in Horowhenua has often been hostile. The district has its share of community activists, communication, including Feyen's, is often forthright and there has long been scepticism about council consultation and transparency.

Clapperton may be in the firing line over email practices the audit labelled "extremely high risk", but nine out of 10 councillors have reiterated their support for him. Bishop says they're awaiting a review of the audit by KPMG.

Otaki Labour candidate Rob McCann also says the Office of the Ombudsman has agreed to take a look. The matter has also been brought to the attention of the Privacy Commissioner and the Office of the Auditor-General.

Feyen's mayoralty began in farcical fashion – he first refused to enter the council building because of worries over its safety and then had his choice of deputy mayor overturned.

Changes to the Local Government Act allowed Feyen to pick the man he thought would be right for the job, Ross Campbell, but the other councillors had a different view. 

In December 2016, just weeks after his promotion, Campbell was voted out. Refusing to accept defeat, Feyen again asserted his right to choose a deputy. The see-sawing continued as the councillors over-ruled Feyen and voted in Bishop as deputy.

Feyen asked the Government for help, but it stayed silent over enforcing the intent of the law – that mayors choose their deputies. 

The struggle over the council building resurfaced in March when the mayor released a self-funded building report that identified a number of weaknesses. 

Feyen had previously publicly questioned the building's safety in the event of an earthquake, despite two reports determining it as safe enough for employees to work in.

The issue has not been resolved and Feyen remains in his office in the building.

In April, the nine councillors supporting Clapperton took out an advertisement sharing "the truth about the council building". They argued it was safe.

In the same month, the mayor's right-hand man, Campbell, was in the firing line as he was accused of violating the council code of conduct by posting a video on Facebook where he talked about a publicly-excluded council meeting.

In the contentious video, Campbell said the closed-doors meeting was about councillors seeking to change the reporting system between Clapperton and Feyen. 

The mayor would later reveal a "chief executive relationship committee" was formed at the public-excluded meeting.

Clapperton and Feyen's communication was limited to fortnightly or weekly meetings chaired by Bishop and also including councillor Victoria Kaye-Simmons. She would later say Feyen was doing a "crappy job" as mayor.

By mid-May, Feyen announced he was giving up on his endeavour to reinstate Campbell as deputy mayor. 

June was the calm before the storm, but when the storm came, it came with a vengeance.

The internal audit was leaked to media and the council's snooping became a public scandal. Feyen said he did not leak the information, but was relieved the matter was now out in the open.

July's council meeting was cancelled after six councillors put in their apologies. That didn't stop Feyen from calling for Clapperton to stand aside while an investigation is carried out into the council's email-blocking and interception practices. 

Across the current term, and the previous two, this was the first ordinary council meeting to be cancelled. The business for that meeting will be transferred to August, when there is sure to be more fireworks.

SEEDS OF DISCONTENT

During Feyen's time as a councillor the seeds of discontent were sown.

In October 2014, a year after Campbell and Feyen were voted in, they were sidelined in a committee reshuffle that left them feeling personally attacked.

​Then-mayor Brendan Duffy said four of the six new councillors integrated into the council well, but two had not. 

Remaining as outsiders, Campbell and Feyen were the only two councillors to abstain from endorsing a financial performance report in November 2014. 

In April 2015, Feyen claimed the "poorly constructed" council building had dropped 4 inches in the southern end and was laden with cracks. 

In March 2016, a complaint was laid against Campbell for calling the council "corrupt". Campbell alleged raw sewage was being pumped from the Shannon Wastewater Treatment Plant into the Mangaore Stream – claims Clapperton called a "complete distortion of facts". Campbell denies calling the council corrupt, but he was censured. 

A month later, Feyen laid two complaints against Duffy and Cr Tony Rush, supported by Campbell. The complaint against Rush was sparked by comments made during a heated debate over the safety of the building. 

Rush said he didn't trust Feyen and Campbell, and he didn't respect them or like them. The councillors voted against taking action against Rush or Duffy.

WHERE DOES ALL THIS LEAVE THE COUNCIL?

As it stands, the issue of the building's safety remains unresolved, Feyen says. 

He has accepted Bishop is and will probably remain his deputy.

The relationship committee meetings, while "uncomfortable", Feyen says, are still going ahead.

Campbell was not found in breach of the council code of conduct for the video he posted on Facebook about information in a private council meeting. Campbell's behaviour was assessed by FairWay Resolution, which cleared him.

Feyen wants Clapperton to stand down while the email intercepting is investigated and Bishop has suggested a by-election to see whether Feyen will be re-elected.

KPMG's review is expected to be tabled at the council's finance, audit and risk subcommittee meeting on August 9.

 - Stuff

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