The deputy mayor has condemned Berwick Town Council for adopting “dark and suppressive” rules over grievance procedures.
At an extraordinary meeting of the council on Monday, it passed a resolution proposed by Councillor Gavin Jones which gives a sub-committee of three people the power to throw out requests for reviews, inquiries and investigations.
Councillor Georgina Hill, the deputy mayor, has been calling for an investigation into the handling of the decision to take over leadership of the Portas pilot project since September. She described the development as “deeply disturbing”.
Councillor Hill believes there has been a lack of transparency over the decision – made in private by the town council’s finance committee in September – to take on the role previously held by the town team. But her calls for an investigation have so far been rebuffed.
In a shocking development this week councillors gave the staffing sub-committee, which has three members, the power to reject any request for reviews, inquiries or investigations that it deems to be “spurious or vexatious”.
Addressing councillors at Monday’s meeting, Councillor Hill said: “I want to state categorically that my crusade is for greater openness and transparency, to ensure that all aspects of our decision making inspire public confidence and to bring us into line with the most current legislation and best practice.”
She added: “There is something deeply disturbing in what we are witnessing. I am concerned that, having asked for an investigation into the council’s management of the Portas ‘takeover’, such a proposal has been put forward. The idea that two people in a staffing committee can decide that they can throw out a complaint is frankly absurd. We need an open investigation.”
Councillor Hill implored councillors to reject the proposal. But it was passed by five votes to three, with four councillors abstaining.
Councillor Jones insisted the resolution – which enables council officers and chairman ‘not to enter into further correspondence relating to requests for reviews, inquiries, investigations or similar’ – was not proposed in response to any specific request.
He said: “We are a small council, we have two and a half members of staff. I have every confidence in the committee. I’m just keen that the council does not get bogged down.
“I’m not trying to block requests - there will be occasions when we will deal with requests. I’m just trying to facilitate a better workflow.”
But Councillor Tom Forrester called the move “anti-democratic”. He said: “When I read this proposal by Councillor Jones I was stunned and surprised to find such an anti-democratic proposal from a Liberal Democrat. It’s becoming clear to me that there is a growing campaign to discredit the deputy mayor. I believe this is politically motivated.
“You would be hard pressed to find any other council in all of England that would have a statement like this. It will create public suspicion. The insistence to hide behind closed doors will be a worry to the people of Berwick.”
Councillor John Stephenson, who voted in favour of the proposal, said: “Councillor Jones is trying to set up a system so we do not have to deal with frivolity. It’s just a pity that it has to be so forceful.”
He added: “There’s an undercurrent here, political or non-political, that’s not helpful. As councillors we don’t have to like each other. We just have to get the job done.”
An amendment to the resolution proposed by Councillor Hazel Bettison, that requests be considered by the whole staffing committee, not the sub committee, was rejected.