• Exmouth councillor censured by standards cttee

    4th July 2013 | News | Claire
  • A Standards Hearing Sub-Committee yesterday (Wednesday) censured an Exmouth member of East Devon District Council for her public criticism of a senior officer of the council in a local newspaper.

    Finding that there had been breaches of the Code of Conduct for Members and an EDDC Protocol, the Sub-Committee ruled that Councillor Eileen Wragg, representing Exmouth Town ward, should face a number of sanctions for her actions. The Sub-Committee also recommended that EDDC should publicise the outcome through its Press Office.

    The issue arose out of a comment that Councillor Eileen Wragg made in a letter she sent to the Exmouth Journal with reference to the Elizabeth Hall. Towards the end of her letter, Councillor Wragg appeared to question the competence of Deputy Chief Executive Richard Cohen.

    At the time the hall was in the news because EDDC had announced that it was planning to redevelop the site as part of its wider Exmouth Vision proposals. The site has since gone under offer by Premier Inn, who were recently granted permission to build an hotel on the site. The formal purchase is currently being finalised.

    The Code of Conduct requires Members to treat others with respect. The Council’s Protocol for relationships between Members and Officers states that any Member who is unhappy about the actions taken by, or conduct of, an officer should follow this protocol:

    • Avoid personal attacks on or abuse of the officer at all times
    • Ensure that any criticism is well founded and constructive
    • Never make a criticism in public and
    • Take up the concern with the officer privately

    In a three-hour session at Knowle, Sidmouth, the Sub-Committee considered a report by an independent investigator, who had found that Councillor Eileen Wragg had breached the Code of Conduct.

    The Sub-Committee heard representations from the Investigating Officer, Councillor Wragg and an Independent Person to determine the facts and whether there had been a breach of the Code of Conduct and the Protocol.

    Having retired to consider their decision the Sub-Committee received legal advice from an EDDC legal officer regarding a question as to whether correct procedures had been followed, given that the complaint about Councillor Wragg had not been made in writing.

    The legal advice was that the complaint did not need to be in writing. The Sub-Committee subsequently found that Councillor Wragg had breached the Code of Conduct and Protocol.

    The legal officer’s initial advice that the complaint did not need to be in writing proved to be incorrect. However, the Sub-Committee were advised that this procedural error did not invalidate the proceedings. The purpose of requiring the complaint to be in writing was so that it was clear what the nature of the complaint was. Here, there was no question about this because the letters were published in the Press.

    Councillor Eileen Wragg had previously been advised of this by EDDC’s Chief Executive and that she could approach the Standards Committee if she was not satisfied. This she chose not to do. The technical procedural error did not therefore invalidate the proceedings.

    The Sub-Committee’s decisions on whether Councillor Wragg breached the Code of Conduct are as follows:

    • The Sub Committee agreed with the Investigating Officer’s reasoning as set out in Paragraphs 6.3-6.5 where the description of ‘arrogant’ was considered discourteous but not sufficiently disrespectful to have breached the Code of Conduct – and therefore find that she did not breach the Code in this respect.

    • However the Sub Committee found that Councillor Wragg’s questioning of Richard Cohen’s competence was disrespectful and that she therefore failed to follow Paragraph 4(a) of the Code of Conduct for the reasons given in 6.6-6.11 of the Investigating Officer’s report, and

    • Councillor Wragg made significant personal criticism of Richard Cohen in her letter. The criticism was made in public and not well founded. She had not taken up her concerns with Richard Cohen privately. The Sub-Committee concluded that Councillor Wragg therefore failed to follow Paragraph 123 of the Protocol for relationships between Members and Officers.

    Further representations were then heard from the Independent Investigator, the Monitoring Officer and Councillor Eileen Wragg.

    After considering all the representations the Hearing Sub-Committee imposed the following sanctions:

    1. Censure.

    Councillor Wragg was unwilling to accept the finding of the Sub Committee and advised that she would take the same action again in similar circumstances. The Sub-Committee accepted Councillor Wragg’s right to challenge alternative views but this needed to be done in an appropriate way.

    2. Reporting.

    The findings of the Standards Hearing Sub-Committee to be reported to the Standards Committee and published through the Council’s press office. The Press Release should include details of the legal advice, and subsequent correction, given to the Hearing regarding the complaint procedure. The Sub-Committee wished to make it clear that the correction to the legal advice was a technicality and did not affect the Sub-Committee’s findings that Councillor Wragg had breached the Code of Conduct and had failed to follow the Protocol on Relationships between Members and Officers.

    The Sub-Committee also made the following recommendations to the District Council:

    1. All councillors to receive training on the protocol on Relationships between Members and Officers.

    2. To review and raise awareness of current Council procedures for Officers publishing letters/articles in the Press.