Rows over LymeForward could ‘cripple’ town council

Cllrs Belinda Bawden (left) and Michaela Ellis have clashed over the management of community interest company LymeForward

LYME Regis councillors have been told their continuous public arguments over community interest company LymeForward could “cripple” the council.

The warning came from town clerk John Wright – the latest in several calls for councillors to improve their behaviour made in the past six months, with many of the personal disputes stemming from disagreements over LymeForward, which runs the town’s food bank and other community projects and receives a £10,000 a year grant from the council.

During this week’s meeting, Cllr Michaela Ellis, the council’s representative on LymeForward, walked out of a meeting after questions were raised about the organisation’s management.

The questions were raised by Cllr Belinda Bawden, who earlier this year was the subject of two formal complaints made by LymeForward chair Sue Davies.

Ms Davies claimed she had been the victim of an “unremitting campaign of serious victimisation, intimidation and persecution” by Cllr Bawden, following a chain of emails and questions raised over the governance of LymeForward.

On both occasions, Dorset Council’s monitoring officer said the claims against Cllr Bawden were lacking in evidence.

The argument has continued for months, with both parties claiming false allegations have been made against them, and has caused personal disputes within the council chamber, with Cllr Bawden at one point saying she felt “distressed, embarrassed and unsafe” at meetings.

At this week’s meeting, Cllr Bawden asked the following questions about LymeForward’s management:

  1. Why was Alan John Reynolds [husband of town councillor Cheryl Reynolds] appointed a director of LymeForward on October 31 2021 and resigned on November 1 2021?
  2. Given that appointment is another example of the very close links between LymeForward and Community Support, is it appropriate that the three trustees who also happen to be town councillors, are allowed to vote on LymeForward’s grant? Surely the close involvement of Community Support in LymeForward’s operations should exclude them on the grounds of pecuniary and non-pecuniary conflicts of interest?
  3. Is it appropriate that any members of LymeForward asking legitimate questions of LymeForward management are routinely ignored, fobbed off then banned as members? Is it even legal for LymeForward to do this?

Cllr Bawden also said it was unacceptable that questions about LymeForward, from members of the public and herself, raised at a recent meeting of the council’s Tourism, Community & Publicity Committee meeting “were ignored at the whim of the committee chairman” [Cllr Cheryl Reynolds].

She continued: “I’m sick of being the only councillor raising this because I know several of you have concerns. I’m sick of the lies; the false, malicious allegations and the veiled threats. I’m sick of the rude, bad behaviour, the bullying and intimidation; and I’m sick of the endless obfuscation and the cover-ups.”

As the council’s representative for LymeForward, Cllr Ellis said she would respond to Cllr Bawden if she put her questions in writing.

‘Vendetta’ against LymeForward

However, she then announced she would be leaving the meeting commenting: “I am fed up of Cllr Bawden going on and on and on, accusing people on this council of falsehoods and lies and I don’t want to be sat in this room with her.

“It is absolutely disgusting and there seems to be a vendetta against other people in this town and other groups. I’m sorry but I am not staying.”

She then left the meeting but Ms Davies, chair of LymeForward, has since issued a response to Cllr Bawden’s questions – see below.

Town clerk Mr Wright said that some of Cllr Bawden’s questions were legitimate to ask but some were not.

“There are clearly issues between some members and LymeForward and in a way those issues need to be resolved between those members and LymeForward without drawing the council in,” he said.

“Our relationship with LymeForward is purely about the grant, the rationale for that grant and performance of that grant. Those are the things that should actually concern us. We should not be held to account for the whole operation of LymeForward.”

The Mayor of Lyme Regis, Cllr Brian Larcombe MBE, commented: “What goes on with behaviours between LymeForward and its members is between LymeForward and its members. We don’t have any direct influence in that respect, our influence is in them being a grant recipient.”

Cllr Bawden argued that it was an issue for the council to address, as questions from herself and members of the public regarding LymeForward had been “ignored and dismissed” by the council, and because “accusations that are false and completely lacking in evidence” were allowed to be repeated in the town council chamber.

Mr Wright said: “Some of the things you asked were legitimate but some of them weren’t. You have an issue with LymeForward…”

Cllr Bawden interrupted: “No, I have an issue with this council, I have no issue with LymeForward.”

Council staff accused of withholding information

Mr Wright replied: “Well, that’s not how it appears to me and that’s not how it appears from the constant bombardment I’ve had from you trying to get me to intervene with the management of LymeForward, so I question that statement very strongly.

“It’s an incredibly difficult situation and I am trying to protect the council. I personally am getting attacked from the other side, along with my colleague, in terms of our actions and we are not in a very pleasant situation being accused of some of our members of withholding information from the council, which is not entirely true.

“If there’s an issue that somebody wants us to raise that could involve this council in adverse litigation, I will protect the council from that because that is my job and I sincerely hope you all think that is the right approach.

“We have got to get LymeForward pout of council business, it runs the risk of crippling what we want to do, we want to move forward, rather than having all of our meetings bogged down with LymeForward issues. If people have issues with other individuals, it’s not necessarily the council’s fight.”

Cllr Bawden argued the issue was not about the individuals involved and was relevant to the council.

She said a report by the town clerk in October highlighted councillors’ bad behaviour as one of the biggest risks to the council and said this had come largely come about from “LymeForward being adopted as a political weapon”.

“I am not having you guys now saying it’s down to the individuals – it isn’t,” she continued.

“It is a council matter, the bad behaviour is a council matter, our image in the town is a council matter and I am not going to stand for an organisation refusing to answer questions, banning its members and continuing to raise false allegations against me.”

The mayor agreed to look into the questions that were raised by Cllr Bawden and members of the public at the Tourism, Community & Publicity meeting and to consider whether the council should issue a response.

It was also noted at the meeting that LymeForward had not yet signed its grant agreement with the town council, and no further payments of its £10,000 a year grant would be issued until it was signed.

Following the meeting, Sue Davies, chair of LymeForward, issued the following statement in response to Cllr Bawden’s questions:

Why was Alan Reynolds appointed a director of LymeForward on October 31 and resigned on November 1?

We wish to thank Mr Reynolds for expressing an interest in becoming a director and acknowledge his real commitment to the development of local services based on his extensive knowledge of Lyme Regis and surrounding areas. Having been appointed, sadly we were informed that Lyme Regis Town Council governance arrangements precluded him from taking up his duties.

Given that appointment is another example of the very close links between LymeForward and the Community Support Group, is it appropriate that three trustees who also happen to be town councillors are allowed to vote on LymeForward’s grant? 

Placing health and wellbeing services closer to where people live significantly benefits the local community. These are often hampered by outmoded and bureaucratic council governance arrangements.

Working collaboratively enables us to reduce duplication of effort and expenditure, enabling us to deliver much needed community front-line services. In essence this issue should apply to all organisations in receipt of a Lyme Regis Town Council grant.

There are many examples of local councils working with community and voluntary sector organisations. In many cases nationally, the Big Society is well underway on the ground. The Local Government Group recognises the trickier political aspects of sharing services such as accountability, sovereignty and governance arrangements and have produced a guide for local councils.

Is it appropriate that any LymeForward members asking legitimate questions of LymeForward management are routinely ignored, fobbed off and then banned as members? Is it even legal for LymeForward to do this?  

Membership matters are dealt with in accordance with LymeForward CIC’s Articles of Association. We do not comment on individual cases as there would be GDPR and confidentiality implications.

In response to the above statement, Lyme Regis Town Council said: “Claims that Lyme Regis Town Council’s governance arrangements precluded Alan Reynolds from taking up his duties as a director of Lyme Forward are untrue.”

Alan Reynolds also gave the following statement: “I was looking forward to being a director of LymeForward but my wife Cheryl was advised by an officer at Lyme Regis Town Council that she would have to leave the room and abstain from voting regarding LymeForward if I became a director.

“This is not a position I would like to put her in as her first allegiance is to the people of this town and Lyme Regis Town Council. We decided it best that I resign.

“Unfortunately the application was sent in on the Sunday and I was only able to stop it the following day. Hence, the next day resignation.”

Cllr Richard Doney, chairman of Lyme Regis Community Support Group, said: “Cllr Bawden raised a number of questions relating to LymeForward. One of those referenced ‘very close links between LymeForward and (Lyme Regis) Community Support’.

“Lyme Regis Community Support has a working relationship with LymeForward which is commensurate with what you would expect from an organisation whose purpose is to provide active support to those residents of Lyme Regis in need.“Cllr Bawden also asked ‘Is it appropriate that the three trustees who also happen to be town councillors, are allowed to vote on LymeForward’s grant?’.

“As said above, we have a working relationship with LymeForward. I and my fellow councillors Michaela Ellis and Cheryl Reynolds refute any suggestion that we would use our position as a councillor to influence a decision that could be seen to benefit Lyme Regis Community Support or LymeForward either directly or indirectly.”

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