A councillor has apologised after an independent investigation found she was in breach of the code of conduct by accusing the authority of tweaking the size of planning committees to favour the Conservatives.
North Kesteven District Council Lincolnshire Independent member Councillor Marianne Overton will appear before a standards committee hearing on Tuesday after the authority’s leader Richard Wright made several complaints about stories in her regular newsletter.
Members will make a formal decision on whether Councillor Overton breached the code of conduct in line with the findings of an independent investigation, and if so, decide on her punishment.
The investigation found most of Councillor Wright’s complaints about Councillor Overton did not break the code of conduct, however, it found one article entitled “smaller council North Kesteven” did result in a breach.
Lead investigator Melvin Kenyon concluded Councillor Overton was “implying that there had been illegality” when the North Kesteven administration group took what she described as disproportionate extra seats on the two planning sub-committees. The committees were reduced from 22 seats and 23 seats, to 11 seats when they went online during the COVID pandemic.
The investigation report stated: “She went on to suggest that councillors might be disposed to act illegally when considering two upcoming planning applications.
“By saying this, she was by implication undermining council officers, causing them “perturbation”, and suggesting that they had failed to act professionally, show the necessary integrity and impartiality, and might even, as a result, be party to an illegal vote in respect of the upcoming decisions on the two contentious planning applications in her ward.”
The three principles breached, according to the investigation, were:
- You shall always treat others with respect
- You shall not do anything which compromises of is intended to compromise the impartiality of those who work for, or on behalf of the council
- You shall not bring the council of the role of the member into disrepute
A 71 page report into the investigations, describes how Councillor Wright said the article was “full of untruths, misrepresentation, bringing the council into disrepute, casting doubt on impartiality of officer colleagues and is entirely libellous about the NK administration group”.
He denied the council had reduced democratic representation and said it was made clear that all members could make representations through nominated committee members. He added the move was only to last until after the COVID pandemic.
He said other councils had made similar arrangements or were not holding meetings at all, in contrast to claims in the newsletter, and said the Lincs Independents took up “many hours” of leaders’ time by failing to accept the reductions.
“I have had conversations with Councillor Overton, in my office, previous to the release of this and other newsletters, where I have asked her to stop writing inaccuracies,” he said.
“However, this newsletter, goes far beyond anything previously released, in that it is completely untruthful in part and brings the council and its officers into disrepute – something that cannot be tolerated or allowed to go unchecked.”
Responding to the complaint, Councillor Marianne Overton said it was a “simple fact to state that the representation has been reduced”.
In written evidence, she said the allegations were entirely disproportionate and accused Councillor Wright of impeding her and her members in executing their roles.
She said: “Having a disproportionate balance on the planning sub-committees is dangerous for NKDC as it does not give the public confidence, especially when the first application due to come to committee was from the favoured son of a long-standing Conservative party chairman.
“My strenuous efforts on the political balance of the sub-committee have been to preserve the integrity of the planning system at NKDC.”
Later, when speaking to investigators she said: “For me as an independent it was very clear.
“If you have fewer representatives then there’s less representation.
“When there’s a lot of members we didn’t mind, when you’ve only got a few it becomes more of an issue,” she said.
She said she had agreed with the move, but that she did not think it was necessary and argued that the reduced committee size was not politically balanced.
She denied she was complaining about council officers and that she had faith in them.
She argued “most councils” had not felt, at the time, the need to reduce council committees to go online.
Following publication of a draft report by investigators Councillors Overton later said she regretted the reflection on officers and that she had “no intention of suggesting any illegality or misconduct by officers”.
“I am sorry that they took the words in that way. Nor did I have any intention of suggesting anyone “might be disposed to act illegally”, absolutely not,” she said.
However, she did not accept a conclusion she had been “implying there had been any illegality” and said she felt the political balance was correct overall.
“I have always been respectful in my work with officers, councillors, and members of the public and I am sorry that you do not see this paragraph as in keeping with that,” she said.
“I accept in hindsight that my newsletter was viewed in the way you and officers viewed it and for that I am sorry. I would be happy to apologise for that.”