The independent members of a district council’s standards committee have attacked the authority's "siege mentality" and torn into the behaviour of councillors who believe that no meaningful sanctions can be taken against them.
The report, prepared by the four independent members for a meeting of Thanet District Council’s standards committee due to be held last night (21 November), said their overall impression was of a council whose members were distrustful of each other, and of the public.
“There appears to be a ‘siege mentality’, which in the view of the independent members of the standards committee contributes to behaviour which falls short of the council’s stated aim of ‘high standards of conduct’,” it added.
The independent members acknowledged that the local authority’s political situation – Thanet is a ‘hung’ council with a fine balance of power – brought with it a number of practical challenges.
ut the report said: “There have been suggestions that some councillors have stated in public that they intend not to comply with the democratically agreed decisions of the council, presumably in the full knowledge that there are no meaningful sanctions that can be taken against them.
“While the independent members of the standards committee have no doubt that these actions are taken with the noblest of intentions, it does make a mockery of the rules of the council by which all councillors are held to account and suggests that some councillors, at least, are not prepared to comply with the Code of Conduct.”
The independent members added that there had been occasions on which councillors had stated that they did not intend to comply with the outcome of standards hearings, “again because there are no meaningful sanctions that can apply.”
On the current situation at Thanet, the independent members’s report also said:
As a political organisation, it was not surprising that party politics were obvious, not just in the debating chamber at full council, but also in communications between elected members and the local press, and in other fora including, but not limited to, the use of social media (blogs, twitter, facebook and video-blogs).
The conviction of a former councillor had had an adverse effect on the perception of the council in the mind of the public, and this presented challenges for all members of the council.
Recent decisions made by full council had sought to control the ways in which moving images of the council’s meetings were produced and disseminated. This had led to the ejection of a member of the public from a meeting of full council.
Recent comments made by some councillors towards members of the public in public meetings had been “less than respectful”, and had led on occasion, to the making of personal threats.
The council was, it was suggested, held in low regard by the public. “An, admittedly unscientific, assessment of comments made (in the press, local bloggers, twitter, personal conversations, by local interest groups etc) suggest that there is a local suspicion of secrecy, corruption and distance between the council as it is perceived in the offices in Cecil Square, the reality of people’s lives and the needs of the district”.
The independent members’ perception was that of “demonstrable distrust” between members, and between councillors and the general public. “On some occasions this distrust has taken the form of outright hostility”.
Many personal attacks had been witnessed taking place between members during debates. From their position in the public gallery, the members had heard the “overwhelming view” from members of the public that the councillors were not serving the public by whom they were elected. “Indeed, attendance at council meetings is seen by some as a form of entertainment.”
Correspondence published in the local press, including official press releases and the columns written by the leaders of the main political parties, included personal attacks, between members, and on some occasions towards individual members of the public.
The independent members said that there had previously been a general consensus on the standards committee that some kind of action was necessary.
However, they said they had seen “little, if any, evidence” that this consensus was repeated outside the committee meeting. “Certainly, no changes in behaviour have been observed by the independent members of the standards committee.”
The report said tackling the low public perception was the responsibility of all members, “and is not limited to those whose names and profiles appear in the local media or those against whom complaints are recorded”.
It added: “The council has the appearance of a dysfunctional organisation whose behaviour and internal squabbles adversely affect the delivery of services, capital projects etc to the residents of the local district.”
The independent members suggested that the situation could not be allowed to continue if Thanet DC and its councillors were to be viewed as true leaders within the district. “The dominant view of the council and its elected members must be rehabilitated as a matter of urgency.”
The report called on all councillors to demonstrate respect in all aspects of their work, including (but not limited to) their dealings with each other, with officers of the council, and "crucially" with the public. Demonstration of respect was, currently, lacking, it said.
The independent members said the standards committee’s options were to:
Take no action and allow the current situation to continue. However, they said this option carried considerable risk;
Take action within political groups: leaders of political groups could address the behaviour of their members. This carried a risk of a lack of consistency across the council;
Deliver training for all elected members. “However, for training to be effective, it is suggested….that it should be compulsory.”