WTC: The Mayor’s Nest
- an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, catching up on the tsunami in a thimble at Whitby Town (Parish) Council.
There are two unrelated meanings of the term “mare’s nest” in circulation, and there is little to connect them. The first, and proper meaning, expresses the notion that one believes that one has discovered something remarkable and worthy, when in fact one has found nothing useful at all.
The second meaning, which is more widespread today, is that a “mare’s nest” is a confused mess – a tangle of illogical and unrelated nonsense.
It so happens that this present report can legitimately invoke both meanings, courtesy of Councillor Heather COUGHLAN, Mayor of Whitby, whose nest is by no means populated solely with “good eggs” – hence, the title of this article.
Following the extraordinary affair of the Town Clerk’s Formal Grievance and Standards Complaints against the members of the Council’s Finance, Policy & General Purposes Committee (FP&GP) – with the exception of Deputy Mayor Councillor Sean RIXHAM-SMITH – the bitter in-fighting at WTC has soared to even greater heights of surrealism – locked into an escalating cycle of accusation and denial that, unlike the movie “Groundhog Day”, offers no prospect of a happy ending.
The present deadlock is down to the Town Clerk’s point-blank refusal to admit that her scatter-gun allegations against all bar one (the Deputy Mayor) of the FP&GP – that, following a discussion at an earlier FP&GP Meeting on 17th June 2014 (which the Deputy Mayor did not attend), one or more (or probably four) of them had repeated to me that the Clerk had been taking sensitive Council digital data off-site on a portable memory device.
The details of this tsunami in a thimble can be reviewed in two earlier articles:
The Clerk would appear to be relying on my statement that the information was passed to me by four Councillors, whom I have not named – and she has not named. Nor is she able to name them. So she has charged the whole membership of the FP&GP committee, in the knowledge that four of them are ‘innocent’ – innocent, that is, of reporting information discussed in what the Clerk admits was an open Meeting (and therefore in the public domain, irrespective of the fact that no members of the press or public attended). In such circumstances, no infringement of confidentiality can possibly have occurred.
The Councillors concerned are:
- Councillor Niall CARSON
- Councillor John FREEMAN
- Councillor Terry JENNISON
- Councillor Simon PARKES (Chair)
- Councillor Derek ROBINSON
- Councillor Mrs Amanda SMITH (Vice Chair)
- Councillor Steve SMITH
- Councillor Phil TRUMPER
It is fair to say that all eight have reason enough to be resentful of these unfounded accusations.
But none more so than Councillor Derek ROBINSON, who has every right to be absolutely furious.
This is because he knows, better than most, that it was not following the 17th June 2014 FP&GP Committee Meeting that the so-called ‘leak’ took place – it was all of a year ago – and Councillor Derek ROBINSON personally knows this for a 24-carat solid gold certainty because he and I discussed the matter in November 2013 – six months before Derek ROBINSON joined the Council – and the information had been doing the rounds for some time before that.
Yet the Clerk has been stubbornly insisting that the so-called ‘leak’ – that was actually not a ‘leak’ – took place on 17th June 2014.
The ‘Altercation’ (or “Bunfight at the Pannett Corral”)
On 4th March 2014, WTC Resolved to film/record all Meetings and archive them on the Council web-site.
This has not taken place. Had it done so, the events of the FP&GP Committee Meeting of 17th June 2014 and all other Meetings would be part of the permanent record. Nothing in the Minutes of that Meeting refers to the contentious issue of the Clerk’s habit of taking the Council’s digital back-up data off-site (or her authorisation, if any, for doing so), nor is there any reference to the medium upon which the digital back-up data was transported, or the nature of the container in which it was transported. The Clerk’s contention that information about the digital back-up data was discussed at this Meeting was subsequently ‘leaked’ has no support whatsoever in the public record.
When the Full Council Meeting of Thursday 9th October closed, a handful of Councillors engaged in a casual conversation as they packed up their papers and prepared to leave the chamber.
Councillor Derek ROBINSON was approached by the Clerk, who was clearly agitated, and insisting that it was she who was the “victim”, since she had been put at physical risk by the publication of the information that she had carried data off-site. The fact that the Clerk did so (which she has not denied) without the authorisation of the Council demonstrates that any risk she found herself under was a consequence of her own unauthorised actions. That notional risk was, in any case, negligible – unless one believes that data-thieves have been lurking behind every bush on the Clerk’s 100km round trip to and from work each day.
And, presumably, had she registered herself as Registered Data Controller with the Information Commissioners’ Office five years ago when she took office (part of her statutory duty), she would have read and digested the Guidance and known that she was not permitted unauthorisedly to take data off-site at all. The Council cannot be held accountable for any breach in its duty of care to the Clerk in respect of actions taken without its authorisation or even knowledge.
Councillor ROBINSON expressed the view that, irrespective of how or why or the data was carried off-site, the wider public knowledge of that action preceded his tenure on the Council (beginning in May 2014) by at least six months, and the Clerk should therefore withdraw her Grievance and Standards Complaint against him (if no-one else), since he clearly had no part in any so-called ‘leak’ of information. With that, he attempted to withdraw.
But the Clerk followed him and began a fresh harangue. Councillor Derek ROBINSON expressed concern about the accuracy of the Minutes of the previous Human Resources Committee Meeting, due for ratification the following morning at a Meeting that he would himself be unable to attend.
It is perhaps unfortunate that when Councillor Derek ROBINSON, who comported himself with great restraint throughout these exchanges, began to detach himself from a third attempt by the Clerk to force her point of view, other Councillors began to intervene – two of them with great passion and strong language, in support of the Clerk.
The upshot of all this was that on Friday 10th October 2014, five of the Councillors who had been present at this so-called ‘altercation’ received the following letter from Mayor Councillor Heather COUGHLAN, who was herself amongst those present, as was the Deputy Clerk. The writing-style suggests that the letter was drafted by someone else. And one can assume that choice to send a letter rather, than an email, was informed by a wish to minimise the chances of it being ‘leaked’:
As you were present after the close of the meeting on 9th October 2014, during the altercation between an Officer and Councillors [note the use of the plural], I would appreciate if you would give me a written signed statement of your recollections because I wish to gain a fuller picture of what took place. I will also be requesting statements from the two Officers present.
Please can you return this to me by 17th October 2014 to the office and mark the envelope for my eye only.
Heather R Coughlan
The addressees were:
- Councillor Simon PARKES
- Councillor Derek ROBINSON
- Councillor Steve SMITH
- Councillor Phil TRUMPER
- Councillor Mrs Noreen WILSON.
Curiously, Councillor Dennis COLLINS was not listed amongst the addressees, though he was present (and vocal) at the so-called ‘altercation’.
Having reviewed the audio-recording, I can say with great certainty that only the Clerk, the Deputy Clerk, the Mayor, Councillor Noreen WILSON and Councillor Dennis COLLINS sound agitated. Councillors Simon PARKES, Derek ROBINSON, Steve SMITH and Phil TRUMPER all sound calm and measured.
Meanwhile, earlier in the day (before the Mayor’s letter was hand-delivered), the Human Resources Committee had met. One of its Agenda items required members to ratify two Staff Grievance Resolutions amongst the Minutes of the previous Meeting, at which Councillor Derek ROBINSON had quite properly declared a personal and prejudicial interest and left the chamber:
- Councillor Mrs Noreen WILSON (Chair)
- Councillor Dennis COLLINS
- Councillor Mrs Heather COUGHLAN
- Councillor John FREEMAN
- Councillor Terry JENNISON
- Councillor Niall CARSON
- Councillor Derek ROBINSON (declared an interest and retired from the chamber)
Those marked in bold type are also members of the FP&GP Committee.
It is interesting, therefore, to note that Councillors CARSON, FREEMAN and JENNISON have here Resolved (inter alia) to send letters of censure to themselves (although Councillor Terry JENNISON is understood to have abstained from voting).
Does that mean that they confess to being ‘guilty as charged’ of the Clerk’s allegations that they ‘leaked’ information to me following the 17th June 2014 FP&GP Meeting? Go figure.
On Monday 13th October 2014, I emailed the Chair of the Human Resources Committee Councillor Noreen (“You can shove your camera up your arse!”) WILSON requesting the outcome of Agenda Item HR334/14 seeking the ratification of the Minutes.
I was particularly aware of the closing words of the first Resolution – “subject to the employees[sic] agreement to this action”.
Was the Clerk willing to accept the letters of censure in full satisfaction of her Grievance?
So I emailed the Clerk. But the Clerk was unable to shed any light, either – according to her email to me of the same day (Monday 13th October 2014):
A meeting of the Human Resources Committee took place on Friday 10th October, where I understand the subject of my grievance was resolved. As I was not present at the meeting I am unable to confirm what the final resolution was, however I am sure that the Chairman of Human Resources or the Deputy Clerk when she returns to work on Tuesday will be able to issue a statement.
Tuesday has come and gone and no statement has materialised, either from the Deputy Clerk or from the Chair of the Human Resources Committee Councillor Noreen (“You can shove your camera up your arse!”) WILSON.
From time to time, I have been scolded, invariably by some semi-literate and anonymous ignoramus, for “revelling in situations allowing you [me] to openly deride and ridicule, and basically pick on those who put themselves forward to serve on a Whitby based public body”.
There is no prohibition (yet) against criticising public servants. When their conduct is ridiculous they lay themselves open to derision and ridicule – and it is quite proper, and clearly in the public interest, to expose their conduct for what it is – ridiculous. It is proper because electors have every right to know how Councillors have comported themselves, so that in future they may vote knowing who and what they are being called upon to mandate.
Moreover, Councillors also need to be forewarned, when their own grasp of events is inadequate (as it so often is) against acting in such a way as to jeopardise the good repute and/or the financial stability of the Council – our Council.
In an email to me dated 1st September 2014, the Town Mayor, Councillor Heather COUGHLAN) included the following extraordinary accusation:
“I am aware that Councillor Rixham Smith [sic] was annoyed about this situation and the underhanded method of the (so we thought loyal councillor or councillors). I do not think he overstepped his boundaries, having witnessed many times in the past councillors and members of the public abusing each other and visiting officers of the Borough Council. We as councillors regularly disagree and fall out, that is democracy.”
That passage highlighted in bold type constitutes an extremely defamatory assertion regarding members of the Council. Aside from any question as to whether this is appropriate conduct on the part of the Mayor, I was interested to discover if there existed any evidence to support such accusations. So I lodged a Freedom of Information request with the Mayor that very same day – 1st September 2014. The Council has 20 working days in which to respond to FOIA requests, so I should have received my response no later than 29th September 2014.
So, on 12th October 2014 (a fortnight after the last possible legal response date), I emailed the Clerk to enquire about my outstanding FOIA request.
The following day (13th Oct. 2014), the Clerk replied – the Mayor had apparently ignored my FOIA request completely. As to why she would do that, readers must make their own suppositions.
Anyway, the Clerk has now dealt with my request very swiftly and efficiently and the following elements of her response tell a very interesting story:
1) The names of those Whitby Town (Parish) Councillors who have engaged in the verbal abuse of fellow Members in open Meetings, as attested to by the Town Mayor in her email to me of 1st September 2014.Councillor Mrs Coughlan has been a Town Councillor for nearly 12 years, she has not made a point of recording any such names during this period.2) The names of those Whitby Town (Parish) Councillors who have engaged in the verbal abuse of Officers of Scarborough Borough Council in open Meetings, as attested to by the Town Mayor in her email to me of 1st September 2014.Councillor Mrs Coughlan has been a Town Councillor for nearly 12 years, she has not made a point of recording any such names during this period.
In other words, nothing on the public record suggests that there was any truth at all in the Mayor’s defamatory accusations against her fellow Councillors.
It would seem to me that there are far too many scatter-gun accusations flying around at Whitby Town (Parish) Council but – whether from the Mayor or from the Clerk – no evidence to back them up.
This present nonsense is by no means trivial. The consequences of a successful action for Constructive Dismissal on the part of a Council employee are far-reaching indeed. At the present time, so low are the WTC Reserves that a settlement limited to only one year’s salary (and the attendant pension contributions) could wipe them out, never mind the legal costs which could easily equally or exceed the claim itself.
Balborough Parish Council, for example, recently found itself on the losing end of a nine-day hearing in a Constructive Dismissal action brought by the part-time Parish Clerk that cost tax-payers a total of over £65,000.
Cases of fraudulent claims for Constructive Dismissal (by which I mean, cases in which the grounds for the claim have been fabricated) are few and far between. This is because the employment records of the claimant are invariably firmly in the hands of the organisation against whom the claim is made, and therefore representative of that organisation’s interpretation of events.
In the case of Parish Councils, this is conspicuously not the case. The records are entirely in the hands of the Parish Clerk as data Controller (whether regictered or not), who drafts the Agendas and Minutes and many of the internal reports and procedures, as well as the Council’s external correspondence.
Following WTC Town Clerk Pam DOBSON’s failed attempt to carry a Constructive Dismissal claim against her previous employer – Marlborough Town Council – in 2010, some of the Marlborough Town (Parish) Councillors felt that the claim was contrived and far from genuine. In a press statement, the Council (as a body corporate) announced:
“We are pleased that the matter has now been concluded, especially as the council was completely surprised that the claim was made in the first place.
Mrs Dobson’s actions, as several councillors have suggested, could have been passed to the police for investigation, as a mis-use of public office and a possible offence under the Fraud Act.”
I am not for one moment suggesting that any WTC employee has been confabulating a paper-trail that would support a fraudulent Constructive Dismissal claim.
What I am suggesting is that IF a fraudulent claim were ever to be contrived, by any employee of the Parish Council, a large proportion (almost certainly a majority) of the present Councillors are so deeply embroiled in their petty personal sniping at one another, and anyway so ignorant of the law and the procedures, that they run the risk of passively facilitating such an attempt – out of some misplaced and unquestioning sense of loyalty to the employed staff (without whom most Councillors would be rudderless and the Council would grind to a halt).
Their overview (and ours) is severely limited by the fact that much of the Council’s Policy documentation is not easily available. (See website shot, below).
One can but wonder why.
And why are some Councillors so profoundly committed to a policy of keeping all knowledge of the Council’s internecine strife out of sight of the prying public? Whose bsuiness do they imagine they are in office to conduct, if not ours? Why the affection for secrecy?
Curiously, the former Mayor Councillor John FREEMAN has thrown a curved ball into the mix. On Tuesday 14th October 2014, he sent the following email to the Clerk with his request that it should be circulated to all Councillors.
Perhaps even more curiously, the Clerk’s email forwarding the Mayor’s email along, as requested, was restricted to only eight of the Councillors, including John FREEMAN himself (who knows, therefore, that nine other Councillors were omitted by the Clerk, for reasons unknown). And why did the Clerk sit on it for nearly three hours?
—–Original Message—– From: Whitby Town Council
Sent: Tuesday, October 14, 2014 11:52 AM
To: Amanda Smith ; Dennis Collins ; Derek Robinson ; Heather Coughlan ; Ian Havelock ; John Freeman ; Rebecca Pearson ; WTC ; Wynne Jones
Subject: Fw: wtc
From: John Freeman
Sent: Tuesday, October 14, 2014 9:10 AM
To: Whitby Town Council
Dear Pam would you please pass this on to my fellow councillors.
1) I responded several weeks ago regarding to the clerk as to who I sent emails to.
2) In recent weeks Mrs Dobson has had to cope with varying forms of inappropriate behaviour. She has gone about defending herself as she sees fit,responding in a professional manner whilst under considerable pressure. She is a very considerable asset to WTC and her time and expertise should be valued not wasted on the issues bandied about in the recent past. Councillors MUST exercise a duty of care to all their staff. We have many important issues involving the towns welfare and would ask my fellow councillors to concentrate on these.
If there is a lesson to be learned from all this – and I believe that there is – it must surely be this:
A Town (Parish) Council is only as good as its member Councillors.
Perhaps we should choose them more carefully; lest they choose each other – through the highly suspect process of Co-option – commonly known as the “cronies’ back door”.
There is an election next May, folks.
And remember that those Councillors who are accused of treachery for sharing letters and emails with me are the very same Councillors who genuinely do uphold transparency – they believe that the public has every business knowing about the pettty backstabbing that takes place behind closed doors. We need more of them.