Councillors urged to show more respect
A new report on the issues which have blighted Berwick Town Council in recent years has been deemed '˜too little, too late'.
Councillors have, however, agreed all 20 recommendations set out in the independent report by Hoey Ainscough Associates which seeks to ensure the council works more effectively in the future.
These include an undertaking by councillors to treat fellow councillors and officers with respect and not to make personal attacks on individuals in public or in private.
At Monday’s meeting of the full council, it was also agreed to create a policy which makes clear that, while emails and social media can and should be used by individuals to promote policy debate, policy issues and communicate with the public, attacks on the integrity of individuals are not appropriate.
“The report is too little, too late,” said Cllr Georgina Hill. “I say that, first of all, on the positive basis that we are actually now moving forward.
“It is frustrating for me because over three years ago I urged Northumberland County Council to intervene... and they did nothing.”
She said it ‘stuck in the throat’ that councillors were being ‘treated like naughty school children’ when the county council had to share some of the blame for its role in the Portas affair when the town team was closed down, the catalyst for the ensuing problems.
“The cause of the turmoil has been maladministration, then the denial of maladministration and then the covering up of maladministration and this shooting the messenger. That is what created the loggerhead situation,” she told the meeting.
“One of the reasons that there was all this exposure on social media was because of the deliberate frustration of trying to go through the proper channels.”
Cllr Gordon McLean hoped the report would sent the message out that the council is finally ready and able to move on.
He said: “This report is unbiased, honest and fair and it has finally addressed the issue that the majority of us are well aware of; namely, lack of respect. The principle reason for the report was to look at the breakdown of councillor relationships. The main problem identified was, and still is, the lack of respect shown towards fellow councillors and staff.
“Regardless of any poor governance in the past, we should never justify the lack of respect or the use of social media to cast doubt on councillors’ honesty or integrity without providing that evidence.
“Committing to these recommendations will send out a positive message to the public that we acknowledge the unacceptable behaviour and are committed to dealing with it.”
Cllr Karin Graham added: “I do believe we have battled out a lot of the problems and we have achieved some amazing things regardless of what some might say but I think we were left far too long before there was any intervention. We needed help because the governance was so poor and we were left floundering.”
Cllr Brian Parkin said the ‘tit-for-tat’ nature of exchanges in the council chamber and on social media was ‘unprofessional and embarrassing’.
He added: “I welcome the report and its recommendations and hope they are implemented. I see it as an important document to help the council move forward. We could probably argue all night about the root causes of the problems with the council. However, whether there have been governance issues or not, this doesn’t excuse some of the behaviour of the past few years.”
The report by Hoey Ainscough was commissioned by Northumberland County Council to address the issues which have dogged the town council.
It states: ‘While our review went wider than a focus on behaviour and looked at what underlay some of the issues it is clear to us that the issue of respect needs to be addressed by the town council before it can begin to improve its working processes.
‘Our experience from working with the councillors and observing the town council is that there is a high level of animosity between a number of councillors and between certain councillors and officers which is holding the town council back.
‘The way that these disagreements are articulated goes way beyond legitimate disagreements about policy or procedures and has descended into deeply personal and offensive insults and allegations being made which question the integrity of individuals. These comments are made in meetings, in widely circulated emails and on social media.
‘Such comments and postings often lead to a downward spiral and what can start as a legitimate question or concern descends into offensive comments and unevidenced allegations of wrongdoing which simply leads to positions becoming entrenched. The whole culture of the town council thereby becomes deeply unprofessional and brings the town council into disrepute.
‘If councillors are serious about bringing about the change that is needed they must therefore start to work together collectively as a team and stop personal attacks and feeding the flames of such attacks.
‘We do believe the council has operated ineffectively in certain aspects but we have seen no evidence of wilful or corrupt behaviour, but simply at certain times a failure to understand or follow the rules and procedures’.