Every year there are councillors who find themselves on Santa’s list of coal recipients and 2021 has been no exception.
From criminal activity to upsetting the opposition, even during the COVID-19 pandemic these councillors couldn’t stay out of the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Sometimes, wrongdoing leads to suspensions, other times it’s an apology, and in one instance – it’s jailtime. Here are some of this year’s most notable councillor misdeeds.
Giles McNeill – West Lindsey District Council
Former Conservative and West Lindsey District Councillor Giles McNeill was jailed for 14 months in November after admitting eight theft, fraud and forgery charges totalling £31,201.04 from his own party, over a six year period.
Lincoln Crown Court heard McNeill paid dozens of fraudulent cheques into his own bank account and kept members’ payments from 22 party fundraising events over a five year period.
This included paying over £4,000, meant for constituency association coffers, into his own bank account the day after Boris Johnson was guest speaker at a Tory party fundraiser in March 2018.
During interview, McNeill admitted he began gambling in 2013 and this became acute by 2016 – but he also insisted others were happy for him to “do the donkeys work,” and not to take any responsibility.
Passing sentence Judge John Pini QC told McNeill his fall from grace had been steep.
The judge said: “If the electorate can not trust those elected then politics breaks down. Your conduct was a gross breach of trust over a number of years.”
Mr McNeill resigned as leader of the council in September 2020, prior to the allegations coming to light, and was later removed from his chosen party, but sat as an independent in the ward until a month prior to his sentencing.
In a by-election on December 16, his former Nettleham seat went to Liberal Democrat candidate Jaime Oliver who took 51% of the vote. Mr McNeill has won in 2019 with just 27%.
Ian Stokes – South Kesteven District Council
South Kesteven District Councillor Ian Stokes resigned as from his role as vice chairman of the authority on November after his use of the ‘n-word’ in a public meeting sparked protests, calls for extra training, and an investigation into his conduct.
Councillor Stokes, who remains as an independent councillor for the Peascliffe & Ridgeway, was caught on SKDC’s livestream when, in response to another set of comments, he said: “Well that’s put a little n****r in the woodpile so to speak.”
He was later suspended from the Conservative party in response to his comments.
Racism and equality campaigners immediately called for Councillor Stokes to resign. While Councillor Amanda Wheeler renewed her calls for more equality and diversity training for members – particularly after it was revealed only a quarter of councillors took up a voluntary diversity course. Some later argued they had attended training elsewhere.
A code of conduct review into his actions recommended several sanctions against Councillor Stokes, including asking him to make a further apology and attend equality and diversity training.
The report, from monitoring officer Alan Robinson, says he breached the code of conduct and states: “Councillor Ian Stokes, in saying the phrase and the racist connotations the phrase represents, is [in] significant breach of this part of the code. His behaviour falls below the standards expected of anyone working in public office.
“In addition, use of such a phrase is in conflict of the council’s equality and diversity policy and the equality and diversity objectives set out in the council’s corporate plan 2020-2023.”
Gary Hewson – City of Lincoln Council
A Standard’s Hearing at the City of Lincoln Council found that Councillor Gary Hewson had breached the authority’s code of conduct during phone conversations with Resident Involvement Manager Chris Morton, in which he tried to get officers to visit local residents as part of a tour of his patch.
The Boultham ward councillor was asked to make a “sincere apology” to Mr Morton and a request was made to remove him from the Performance Scrutiny and Housing Sub-Committees for the remainder of the year.
Mr Morton complained about Councillor Hewson following a tour of inspection around Moorland and Boultham Park in August.
The Boultham ward councillor wanted to know when officers would visit the St Andrew’s Gardens area, but was told by Mr Morton that it was not on the route at the time.
Mr Morton said Councillor Hewson “went off on one” – including threatening to go to the officer’s bosses and press, as well as telling him he should not be in his job – before he could resolve the issue.
Councillor Hewson later emailed the officer to apologise after the complaint was made, however, Mr Morton rejected the apology, believing it to be insincere.
Councillor Hewson acknowledged he had crossed a line in the words he had used, however, he told the committee he also should be given an apology because he believed the council officers had done wrong themselves.
Paul Howitt-Cowan – West Lindsey District Council
Councillor Paul Howitt-Cowan was another councillor who’s story started in 2020, but came to a head in 2021.
Then deputy leader of West Lindsey District Council Councillor Howitt-Cowan left the Conservatives in February – though the method of his exit was disputed.
A statement from Gainsborough Conservative Association said a meeting of its executive council had taken the decision to expel Councillor Paul Howitt-Cowan due to his behaviour — “acting in a manner inconsistent with the objects and values of the association and the party.”
However, the Hemswell ward councillor himself said he resigned because he “lacked faith and confidence in its officers”.
The December before, he had been told to apologise and censured by officers after breaching the code of conduct by telling residents a house builder “might try to be naughty” and encouraging them to spy on him.
Further allegations also surfaced that Councillor Howitt-Cowan had been contacting a local person who was keeping him informed about the development – however, Councillor Howitt-Cowan denied sending it.
The email, seen by reporters at the time, included the line: “I knew that in time that I would be vindicated, and now WLDC has the evidence” and “the press has crucified me and my council along with Giles who is innocent until proved otherwise”.
In March, Councillor Howitt-Cowan was replaced by Conservative Councillor Anne Welburn as deputy leader. He had held the position for just over three months.
He now sits on the council as an Independent member.
Marianne Overton – North Kesteven District Council
Lincolnshire Independent Councillor Marianne Overton probably wasn’t high up on North Kesteven District Council leader Richard Wright’s Christmas list this year after accusing him of trying to politically silence her.
Councillor Overton, who oversees NKDC’s Cliff Villages ward, was 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.
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”.
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”.
They said it was “simply a statement of fact” and that she had a reasonable factual basis for her belief “regardless of how narrow”.
The article centred on changes to the planning committee in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a move to online meetings.
The article was one of several articles in the newsletter to received complaints, but was the only one to be upheld with the rest being dismissed by the investigator.
An FOI by Local Democracy Reporters later revealed the investigation had cost taxpayers nearly £18,000.
Alex Cox – Louth Town Councillor
Alex Cox resigned from the council earlier this month for “personal reasons”. He had formerly represented St Margaret’s Ward.
In August he was convicted of using threatening and abusive words outside Lacey Garden’s in Louth.
He was fined £80 and ordered to pay £119 in court costs and charges.
Court reports said Cox had, on June 24, been behaving erratically, shouting and swearing as parents dropped their children off, despite being banned from the school premises.
Police were called to the incident, but Cox continued, calling one officer a “paedophile” and swearing at a teacher.
His own child had been present, and Cox told magistrates he “terribly regretted” raising his voice.
He said he was protesting in the belief his child and others had experienced “excessive force” by staff, and that he was on medication.
In his resignation statement, he said it was a decision made “with a heavy heart” but would let him concentrate “on family and what is important during these challenging times”.
He called on the town council to work together to be a “beacon of hope”.
In further statements he accused the government of wanting people to “fight over race, religion, gender and war and accused the media and tabloids of “playing people off against each other”.
“This government relish in us choosing sides. We shouldn’t be arguing about this or blaming one another,” he said.
“What’s important now is putting our families first and preparing for a more difficult and troubling world in which we live in, doing what is morally right, and calling out what is wrong.
“Louth will need unity and hope in the coming months ahead.
“Political fighting on Louth Town Council serves no purpose. I wish each and every resident of Louth the best of Christmases”
Alex Cox was elected on a Labour ticket in 2019, however, in April he supported the Heritage Party ahead of the Lincolnshire County Council elections in May.