Berwick’s former deputy mayor believes she has been “attacked like a whistleblower” after raising concerns about the running of the town council.
The comments came after Isabel Hunter was re-elected as town mayor, in what appeared to be a direct snub to former deputy Georgina Hill.
By tradition, the mayor-making meeting is a largely ceremonial occasion. Since Berwick Town Council was established in 2008, each deputy mayor has been elected mayor at the end of their term.
But the council broke with tradition at a heated annual meeting on Monday, after it was revealed that the town clerk, Sue Finch, is currently under investigation following a complaint made against her by Councillor Hill.
Mayor Isabel Hunter said that she had been in touch with the National Association of Regional Councils prior to the meeting, who had advised her that the council had a duty of care to its staff.
“During the current situation we would be putting ourselves at risk if Councillor Hill was made mayor tonight,” Councillor Hunter said.
Warning members that the council was “in danger of taking a big financial risk”, Grove ward Councillor Joe Lang said that by making Coun Hill mayor – and effectively the town clerk’s line manager – the authority could leave itself “vulnerable” to a claim for constructive dismissal.
“The deputy mayor has made if very clear that the she wants to see the town clerk sacked,” he stated. “If I was in the town clerk’s shoes, I’d feel pretty threatened. I’d think it looked pretty much like constructive dismissal, and for the town council that means a big financial risk.”
Coun Hill branded Coun Lang’s comments defamatory and a disgrace.
But he replied: “I’m just trying to assess the risk we might be taking. I think it would be a pretty big gamble, and it’s not our money we would be taking it with.”
Coun Tom Forrester said he was saddened by Coun Lang’s comments, and revealed that issues within the council were not confined to two individuals.
“It has been custom and practice that the deputy mayor is elected mayor, and we’re breaking this because the town clerk has issues with not just Councillor Hill, but a number of councillors, including Councillor Hunter, who, like myself, are under a code of conduct complaint from her,” he said.
“Whatever happens, the town clerk has made it very clear that she’s not going to go quietly, irrespective of who is mayor.”
He added: “We now have to select the mayor for next year. If the clerk doesn’t like that then that’s just too bad. We’re not in the game of selecting a mayor to suit the town clerk.”
In a secret ballot, Coun Hill missed out by one vote. Eight councillors backed Coun Hunter to Hill’s seven, with one abstention.
Speaking to the Advertiser following the meeting, Coun Hill said she was disappointed not to become mayor, but was relieved that the “goings on” in the town council over the last eight months would now be revealed.
Responding to Coun Lang’s comments that she wished to see the town clerk sacked, she said: “I can categorically state that I have not been campaigning for any end result but for the progression of a thorough independent investigation into the issues that the council faces so that we can move forward in a positive way.
“The council has lurched from one disaster to another, constantly giving the impression it is trying to sweep things under the carpet, fuelling public suspicion.
“Since the Portas issue first blew up, I have been subject to increasing personal attacks and various attempts to silence me which started with defamatory and unsubstantiated allegations of bullying and harassing. These allegations were first made in September, not pursued, only to re-emerge, eight months later just ahead of the mayoral vote.”
She added: “I feel that I have been attacked like a whistle blower. Nobody should ever be afraid to, or be intimidated when, asking difficult questions and scrutinising things which do not seem right.”