22 Sep 2017

Council's email interceptions to continue under new rules

4:23 pm on 22 September 2017

A local council that stopped screening people's emails after it was forced to admit it was doing so is poised to start up the interceptions again under new rules.

Horowhenua District Council chief executive David Clapperton

Horowhenua District Council chief executive David Clapperton Photo: RNZ / Michael Cropp

The Horowhenua District Council's new policy will exclude councillors' emails to promote democracy, but still apply to emails to staff.

RNZ News revealed in July that council chief executive David Clapperton had been screening people's emails for several years, without some of them knowing it.

The council said nine individuals were affected for varying amounts of time, including current mayor Michael Feyen.

Councillors voted in a subcommittee meeting this week to bring in a new policy with many more rules, allowing a privacy officer to put people on a quarantine list if their emails to staff were judged to be offensive.

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Photo: Google Maps

Democratic principles meant it was not appropriate to apply quarantines to councillors' emails, a subcommittee agenda said.

"An elected representative should decide whether or not they engage with an individual, and if they choose not to engage, they can be held to account through the election process."

People would be told if they were put on the list, and it would be reviewed each month.

"Given the process required for an individual to be placed on the quarantine list, the risk of an individual being accidentally placed on the quarantine list is considered to be very low," the agenda said.

The new rules would create three levels of breaches - minor, major and extreme - with escalating quarantine conditions, up to a quarantine period of six months.

Emails from quarantined people would be redirected to privacy officers who would vet them. Previously, Mr Clapperton did the vetting.

The officer would then either release an email in full, edit bits out of it or not send it on at all if it had "no legitimate business content".

The policy balanced privacy rights "against council's obligations to protect its staff's health", the agenda said.

Mr Feyen abstained from voting on the email rules.

He said it was better to have some rules, rather than none as before, but he still did not trust that people would be treated fairly under the new rules, since they were going to be administered by the council officers who were intercepting emails in the first place.

"I find it mindblowing that we never really had a policy before.

"So I'm going about the work of ensuring that people will know the system can be trusted."

But Mr Feyen said one of his emails had been intercepted recently, well after Mr Clapperton said he had stopped doing this.

He also said the impact of the email interceptions on council decisions over the past few years had not been looked into.

"You can't just say, 'No, we're not going to look back on anything and you just have to trust us'. That ain't going to work for a heck of a lot of people."

The new rules should not be enacted until after the council got advice from the Ombudsman and Privacy Commissioner, he said.

The full council will vote on the new rules soon, and they could go into effect as early as 12 October.

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