July 28, 2021 5.46 pm This story is over 34 months old

Councillor gets slap on the wrist after scrap with leader

Councillor says she’s being politically silenced

A Lincolnshire Independents councillor has been asked to apologise to officers and publish a retraction after a standards committee found she had breached North Kesteven District Council’s Code of Conduct.

An independent investigation said a newsletter published by Councillor Marianne Overton had implied officers acted illegally, suggesting something “dodgy” had gone on, and that council officers were not being impartial.

However, Councillor Overton and her defence counsel accused the investigation, sparked by a complaint made by Conservative council leader Richard Wright, of being an “misuse of process” to support “a politically motivated attack”.

During a two day hearing, the authority’s Standards Committee was told an investigation into the complaint found one article within Councillor Overton’s newsletter, headlined “Smaller Council North Kesteven” breached the code of conduct.

Five further complaints around several other articles in the newsletter were dismissed.

The article centred on changes to the planning committee in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a move to online meetings.

A vote at full council reduced the seats on the planning sub-committees from 22 and 23 seats, so 11 seats each split between six NK Administration, four NK Independents Group and one Unaligned.

Council officers felt this, along with changes to other committees, reflected the make-up of the 43 councillors at the time- with 21 NK Administration Group, 18 NK Independent Group and four unaligned members.

Councillor Overton failed to get an amendment approved which would have changed it to 12 seats with a 6:5:1 split.

A week later her newsletter, which has a circulation of around 3,000 people, was published and the subsequent complaint was made.

North Kesteven District Council leader Richard Wright made the complaint which sparked the investigation.

Those who carried out the investigation said they felt the report suggested there had been illegality — with wording such as “reduced the democratic representation”, “fewer voices”, and “as long as the democratic balance was maintained, as required by law”.

Councillor Overton’s report also said the NK Admin Group had “taken disproportionate extra seats” and that the independents would be “watching very closely” how the extra members “speak and vote” on planning.

Investigators said officers were “100% convinced” their calculations were correct and were “perturbed” by the article.

Lead investigator Melvin Kenyon said the use of the phrase “measures taken” by the NK Admin group during investigations implied there had been “interference” in the process.

“We felt she was suggesting that something dodgy had gone on in the council,” he told the committee.

He added that to the man on the street, the council was an “amorphous body” and there was no difference between council members and council officers.

Councillor Marianne Overton (right) with her defence counsel Joel Semakula. | Photo: Daniel Jaines

Councillor Overton’s defence counsel Joel Semakula argued that what Councillor Overton had written was protected by Article 10 of the Human Rights Act – Freedom of Expression.

He said it was “simply a statement of fact” and that she had a reasonable factual basis for her belief “regardless of how narrow”.

He noted disagreements between councillors Wright and Overton had been brewing for some time.

“This [complaint] is a political motivated attack by the leader of the council […] an attack on the freedom of expression of an opposition member,” he said.

“We’re asking the committee to find no breach of the code and to not allow its process to be used as part of political weaponry to silence opposition.”

“It is a misuse of the disciplinary process to pursue a dispute in this way.”

“In reality, the committee has been asked to spend a substantial amount of time and money on a political dispute between the leader of the council and the leader of the opposition,” he later added.

He said the complaint, made more than a year ago, had already caused considerable distress for Councillor Overton and asked for no further action to be taken.

Councillor Overton denied her report had been aimed at council officers and said she had faith in them.

She said she had “no intention of suggesting any illegality or misconduct by officers”.

However, she said she believed her proposal “was a simple solution” and that her article was factual.

“There were fewer people in that committee and that means [democratic representation] would be less,” she said.

“I absolutely believed that to be the case.”

The article from Councillor Overton’s newsletter which was under particular scrutiny.

Asked if she had suggested something was illegal, she said: “Absolutely not. If I wanted to suggest something was illegal, I would say this is not legal, I didn’t say that. I didn’t say it was illegal. What I said was that it is not proportionate.”

“I went to a lot of trouble to keep officers out of it, because I do trust the officers and believe that they do their absolute best to remain impartial and I am very impressed with the dedication and determination.”

“That was not my intention, because political balance is a political decision.”

The committee committee concluded that although the newsletter benefited from protection by Article 10, the last paragraph, referring to NK Administration taking seats, had gone “beyond the norm of what would be expected” and that Councillor Overton had breached the code.

They said, however, they found the wording was not directed at officers or directors but at members.

The committee chairman will make a report to the next Full Council on the findings of the committee.

The committee asked Councillor Overton to apologise to councillors and to print a retraction in her newsletter – however, this was not an enforceable request.

Speaking following the meeting, Councillor Richard Wright refuted it was a politically motivated attack.

He said: “I made it clear at the time there wasn’t political motivation. It was about the fact I wanted to ensure the integrity of the organisation. I thought it was a step too far and brought the council into disrepute.

“It was nothing to do with politics, the council is made up of a number of officers and the reputation of the council is very important if the public are to trust us in our duty.”