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Napier City Council told off after checking councillors' Facebook pages

Radio New Zealand logo Radio New Zealand 28/08/2019 Anusha Bradley
Nanaia Mahuta with his mouth open © RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The Minister of Local Government has sent a subtle warning to Napier City Council that its staff must act in a politically neutral way after staff were caught snooping on "renegade" councillors' Facebook pages looking for code of conduct breaches.

In one email, Wayne Jack asked for legal advice on whether a councillor's post had breached the code or any other policies after he posted a link to a Givealittle fundraiser for The Friends of Onekawa Aquatic Centre. Photo: Supplied to RNZ in an OIA

It comes as one of the surveilled councillors is demanding a formal apology from the council over its behaviour.

Emails released by RNZ earlier this week show Napier City Council chief executive Wayne Jack asked staff to trawl through the Facebook posts of councillors who opposed a new pool project in a bid to find potential code of conduct breaches.

Local governance expert Andy Asquith from Massey University's School of Management called Mr Jack's actions "undemocratic" and he called for the minister to step in.

"Clearly there is a certain element of disfunction in Napier. It's not behaviour that's just a one-off and the chief executive seems to me on evidence we have available to be starting to interfere in the political process," he said.

a screenshot of a social media post: In one email, Wayne Jack asked for legal advice on whether Mr McGrath had breached the code or any other policies after he posted a link to a Givealittle fundraiser for The Friends of Onekawa Aquatic Centre, which is taking legal action against the council over the proposed pool. © Provided by Radio New Zealand Limited In one email, Wayne Jack asked for legal advice on whether Mr McGrath had breached the code or any other policies after he posted a link to a Givealittle fundraiser for The Friends of Onekawa Aquatic Centre, which is taking legal action against the council over the proposed pool.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said it was an operational matter Napier City Council has to deal with and it would not be appropriate for her or the Department of Internal Affairs to get involved.

"The minister notes that all public servants, including council staff, are bound by a responsibility to act in a politically neutral way that does not inhibit democratic debate," she added.

Councillor Maxine Boag, who was one of the four surveilled, had written to Napier City Council acting chief executive Adele Henderson asking for an apology.

It is understood Mrs Henderson has offered to meet affected councillors next week to discuss the issue with Acting Mayor Faye White.

Mr Jack is currently on holiday and unable to respond to questions from RNZ. In an email to councillors yesterday with the subject line "Nothing sells newspapers like good headlines" Mrs Henderson denied any wrongdoing on the council's part.

"I am aware that there has been some media contact so wanted to clarify a few points with you. We do not actively monitor Facebook pages. All councillors are treated equally, however, some councillors are more active on social media than others. We only review posts where there have been concerns raised and these may have been made by other councillors, or members of the community."

The emails showed in one case it was Mrs Henderson who alerted Mr Jack to posts she believed may have breached the councillors' code of conduct.

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