• Councillor walks out of her own standards hearing

    11th July 2013 | News | Claire
  • Cllr Eileen Wragg (libdem) who was referred to EDDC’s standards committee for criticising an officer in a letter to the Exmouth Journal last year, left the hearing early before knowing what sanctions she faced.

    The hearing was scheduled following Cllr Wragg’s letter published in the Exmouth Journal in July 2012, which was in response to a letter penned by deputy chief executive, Richard Cohen.

    Mr Cohen’s letter had irked Cllr Wragg as it had contained criticism of Exmouth residents, relating to the sale of Elizabeth Hall.  The particular sentences that had caused Cllr Wragg concern were “crowd pleasing suggestions,” “unworthy of even vaguely intelligent debate,” and “this gets distorted by those who choose to believe a different version of events.”

    Cllr Wragg had responded with her own letter published in the paper and the sentence “surely such statements must bring the question of competency to mind,” was the one that landed her in hot water with the standards committee.

    At the hearing last Wednesday (3 July), independent complaint investigator, Tim Darsley, summed up the case.

    He said that the word “arrogant” used by Cllr Wragg in her letter, was not sufficiently disrespectful for a breach of the code of conduct to be found, however, questioning Mr Cohen’s competency in a public forum was unjustified and disrespectful.  It was he said, “significant personal criticism.”

    Cllr Wragg responded that she had not meant that Mr Cohen was incompetent, but that it was a criticism of whoever had provided him with the figure of £170k annual running costs of the Elizabeth Hall, and the statement that the money from the sale could be used for revenue costs.

    She said she didn’t understand how an officer should write the words: “not worthy of even vaguely intelligent debate.”  And that she wrote to defend her constituents who had “sincerely held views.”

    She said if Mr Cohen hadn’t written to the Exmouth Journal, she would not have replied and would not be “sitting here now.”

    Cllr Wragg added that she had yet to see a written complaint and that the code of conduct states there should be a written complaint for it to be investigated and that there had been no written complaint.

    She added that a senior officer had contacted the Devon County Council monitoring officer, as Cllr Wragg had signed the letter as a DCC councillor, but the county council’s view seemed to be the same as described by EDDC, following a former complaint by Cllr Wragg of bullying. This was: “The rough and tumble of political life.”

    The DCC officer had confirmed that she would not be pursuing a complaint against Cllr Wragg.

    Cllr Wragg described the complaint investigator, Tim Darsley, as “courteous and fair.”

    Cllr Wragg informed the committee of what she viewed as bullying by another EDDC councillor who had physically prevented her from leaving the members area.  She said that this councillor had not been censured for his behaviour towards her.

    She said she wasn’t sorry she wrote the letter and that she would do it again.

    An EDDC officer replied that Cllr Wragg thought that there was a campaign against her but this was not the case. Cllr Wragg refuted that remark and did not think that there was a campaign against her.

    The DCC monitoring officer had been contacted because there needed to be clarification on which council would deal with a complaint about the letter, the EDDC officer said.

    The EDDC officer continued that the DCC monitoring officer had made no decision on whether there had been a breach of the code of conduct.  The description of the “rough and tumble of political life” was not an appropriate description of this issue, the EDDC officer said, because that related to debate between members and this complaint related to an issue between a member and an officer. 

    This went to the heart of the complaint, said the officer, adding that this was a principle that needed to be recognised within the council.

    Standards committee member, Cllr Peter Bowden, asked whether the code of conduct was robust enough to differentiate between officer-member communications and member-member communications.

    Cllr Wragg was asked if she understood the difference between the two. She replied that she did not see a difference in this instance because Mr Cohen had written the letter to the Exmouth Journal, which prompted her to respond.

    Standards committee member, Cllr Douglas Hull asked if it was appropriate that an officer should write such a letter.  The standards committee was not there to consider a breach of the code of conduct against an officer, was the reply.

    Another officer explained that it was not against any protocol for an officer to write to the press, the issue was what followed.

    Cllr Wragg suggested it was unwise for an officer to write a letter insulting to the public, adding that she thought the “whole business was a sorry state of affairs.”

    Independent person, Alison Willan (who is consulted about EDDC complaints), gave her view of the situation. She said she had taken a step back when considering the complaint, looking at it as “reasonable member of the public” might look at it.

    She said that East Devon council business was being discussed and an officer was named.  A member of the public would view Cllr Wragg’s letter as “very severe criticism.”

    But no informal resolution could be achieved, explained Mrs Willan, so the council was left with little option but to pursue a formal process.

    Cllr Wragg interjected that she had not been offered an opportunity to have a conversation with Mr Cohen and had only been very recently informed that she could have contacted Mrs Willan, by which time the investigation had taken place.

    Cllr Peter Bowden asked if the letter would have been acceptable if Cllr Wragg had not named an officer. The reply was that an officer did not have to be named to breach the code – the rule was that officers must not be criticised in public.

    After an absence to discuss the case, committee chair, Cllr Frances Newth announced when they returned that they had agreed that Cllr Wragg had breached the code of conduct in that she had leveled “significant personal criticism against an officer, which was not well founded.” The committee was also not happy that Cllr Wragg had said she would do it again.

    Cllr Wragg said she was not deliberately being disrespectful but she could not be sorry for what she had said.  “Do what you will,” she told the committee.

    The committee then left the room to decide on sanctions. It was at this time that a heated discussion took place over whether there should have been a complaint in writing.  Cllr Steve Wragg challenged a senior officer present, who had previously advised the committee that this was not necessary.

    However, Cllr Steve Wragg presented paperwork that proved that it was necessary for a complaint to be in writing. The officer then took urgent advice from the chief executive, who confirmed that if the substance of a complaint was clear, the complaint was still valid.

    It was a technical breach of the process, but it did not invalidate it, said the officer, who subsequently updated the standards committee.

    The officer said Cllr Wragg had had the option to pursue a complaint against Mr Cohen.

    Cllr Wragg replied that she had been “too busy doing real things,” and left the room, with Cllrs Steve Wragg and Brenda Taylor.

    Sanctions against Cllr Wragg, including the press release issued as Cllr Wragg’s censure, can be viewed here – http://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/exmouth_councillor_censured_by_standards_cttee/