New Zealand Law Society - Email blocking requires apology, says Ombudsman

Email blocking requires apology, says Ombudsman

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Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has recommended that the Horowhenua District Council apologise to Mayor Michael Feyen and four others for blocking their emails.

They complained to the Ombudsman about being included on an email quarantine list where the Council prevented their messages from going directly to staff.

In his opinion Mr Boshier says the quarantine list was kept between 2011 and 2017 for people whose emails were deemed to pose a risk to staff. Anyone on the list who attempted to email council staff would automatically have their emails diverted to the Chief Executive to be vetted.

The Council had no formal policy in place regarding the quarantining of emails, which meant the practice went largely unchecked.

"Based on the information before me, I have formed the opinion that the Council acted unreasonably," Mr Boshier says.

"The Council’s email quarantine practice ran contrary to the principles of transparency, accountability and fairness. I recommend that the Council apologise to the five complainants, but I do not consider it is necessary to recommend any further action given the Council has addressed the administrative issues I identified by ceasing this practice and introducing a new email quarantining policy."

Mr Boshier says he was concerned by the high proportion of quarantined emails (sent by the five complainants) that were identified as not having a record of being forwarded to all of their intended recipients.

"In particular, there were numerous cases where emails were effectively blocked from reaching their intended recipients without any discernible reason. None of these emails contained language or other content that could be described as abusive or offensive. The sender would also have been unaware that their emails were not passed on."

He says that in the absence of a clear organisational policy or internal guidance on the use of personal email accounts for official Council business, the accessibility, visibility and retention of Council communications and official information may be reduced.

Poor record-keeping practices fundamentally undermine the operation of the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 and reduce transparency and accountability.

"Overall, I consider the Council took a cavalier approach to forwarding quarantined emails to their intended recipients. As a result, Council staff and elected officials were not privy to the full extent of email conversations and range of concerns raised by the affected individuals."