A North Kesteven District Council investigation into a councillor’s newsletter, which resulted in a slap on the wrist for a political rival, cost taxpayers more than £17,500.
A Freedom of Information request found the total cost of the investigation into a complaint about Lincolnshire Independent Councillor Marianne Overton, by Conservative council leader Councillor Richard Wright, cost a total of £17,580.11.
The complaint, accused of being a “politically-motivated attack” by Councillor Overton’s defence counsel, resulted in a two-day Standards Committee hearing which found she had breached the council’s code of conduct in one of her stories.
The offending item centred on changes to the makeup of the virtual planning committee when the council went online during the COVID pandemic.
Investigators said Councillor Overton was “suggesting something dodgy” had been going on in her article.
However, Councillor Overton said what she had written was “simply a statement of fact” and that the disciplinary process was being “misused”.
The committee cleared the rest of the stories of any wrongdoing and said her intentions had not been aimed at council officers, but at councillors.
The committee chairman said he would make a full report to council on the findings, but that no further action would be taken.
Councillor Overton was asked to apologise to councillors and to print a retraction in her newsletter – but this was not an enforceable request.
The costs breakdown includes:
- £140 expenses
- £16,935.20 staffing
- £374.91 stationery
- Plus £130 other costs
NKDC leader Councillor Richard Wright said the costs could have been “totally avoided” if the comments had not been made and distributed “to a great number of people, via her newsletter” in the first place.
He said: “I made the complaint, as the general public need to have faith in how people in public office and public organisations act legally and responsibly and this accusation undermined that.
“These costs have been incurred entirely at the fault of Councillor Overton and if this was a court case, with the case having been found in favour of the complainant, there would have been a route to recover costs.
“However sadly in this case, there is no route to hold Councillor Overton responsible, despite her having been found guilty of the breach of standards.”
Councillor Marianne Overton, however, said the “expensive 16-month formal complaints process” was not justified when the vast majority of complaints were “discarded” and the formal complaint was “unnecessary”.
She said she continues to believe what she had said was true and noted no sanctions were recommended.
Councillor Overton added that she had offered to apologise to officers and to clarify any points in her newsletter.
She said: “This is about democracy and the right to free speech under the Human Rights Act.
“All councillors are entitled to speak politely but clearly on issues.
“Furthermore it is my duty to speak up if I feel that things are not right or could be improved.
“I understand I may have made Councillor Wright uncomfortable, but that does not justify this expensive 16-month formal complaints process.
“Colleagues and I will be seeking improvements to simplify the processes and help keep things in proportion in future.”