UNDERLYING “pain, grievances and hurt” between some members of Lyme Regis Town Council were brought to the surface this week, as councillors were asked to update their code of conduct.
The conduct of every county, district, parish and town councillor in England is governed by codes of conduct, which outline how councillors are expected to behave as publicly-elected representatives.
If a councillor is thought to have breached the code of conduct, formal complaints can be made to Dorset Council’s monitoring officer.
Lyme Regis councillors were asked to update their code of conduct this week, in line with recommendations from the Local Government Association, but the discussion brought to the fore personal tensions and underlying grievances of some members.
It was also revealed that, in previous years, complaints regarding Lyme Regis Town Council made up half the total complaints received by the monitoring officer.
Cllr Cheryl Reynolds, who was asked to make a public apology after being found in breach of the code of conduct in 2019, opened the discussion on Thursday night by saying she felt the document was “pointless” and “rubbish”, as there were often no repercussions when complaints were made.
She explained: “When something goes wrong, we go to the mayor and the town clerk and we say, ‘can you deal with this?’ No, it has to go to the monitoring officer.
“We then go to the monitoring officer who says this should be dealt with locally, so back it comes locally. Although it often isn’t locally, because I believe locally means it should be brought back to the whole council, which often doesn’t happen.
“The code of conduct is for each one of us to apply to ourselves but when we try to do anything with it I find it totally and utterly rubbish.
“I want somebody to tell me why we spend all this time looking at a code of conduct and yet can do nothing with it?”
Town clerk John Wright said he shared Cllr Reynolds’ frustrations with the process.
He said that, while issues over member behaviour were the responsibility of the monitoring officer, in the past both he and the mayor – current and previous mayors – had tried to resolve issues internally.
When issues were dealt with externally, the monitoring officer could only make recommendations to bring back to the town council, and they were limited by statute in what they could recommend, so there were “no significant sanctions which can be imposed on a member”.
Mr Wright added: “I do believe there needs to be a fundamental review of the code of conduct but I don’t sense that coming any time soon, we are where we are with this document.”
Mayor cannot ‘dictate’ councillors’ behaviour
The Mayor of Lyme Regis, Cllr Brian Larcombe, said that, as mayor, he could not be “judge and jury” over another member’s behaviour and issues needed to be considered by an independent officer, such as the monitoring officer.
When the monitoring officer sent back recommendations, it was for the whole council to agree on any sanctions imposed, and not just for the mayor to “dictate” the behaviour of other councillors.
Cllr Reynolds argued: “When the monitoring officer has sent things back to us, it hasn’t always gone to the whole council. Don’t make me remind you what I’m talking about, but you know as well as I do that that didn’t happen.”
Cllr Kelsey Ellis suggested that all complaints should dealt with internally where possible, and then passed to the monitoring officer if a resolution cannot reached. Any recommendations from the monitoring officer should then be considered by a committee.
The town clerk said the process she had described was “entirely correct”, but Cllr Reynolds argued that this did not always happen.
Cllr Michaela Ellis agreed, commenting: “That doesn’t always happen. I had a meeting booked with the town clerk and the mayor last November to sit down and discuss things because I was not happy with how meetings were being held and I wasn’t being allowed to speak and being told off for the way I spoke, so I asked for a meeting with you, Brian, and the town clerk organised it.
“But that meeting never happened because we went into lockdown, and that meeting has never been rearranged.
“I have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for it to be rearranged and now you can understand why these other problems happen, with members of the public coming to us and complaining that they don’t like the way councillors speak to one another.
“That would have ben resolved by now if we had sat down and spoken in November.”
The mayor said that a date had been arranged for the meeting but Cllr Ellis was unable to attend.
Cllr Ellis disagreed, saying: “No, I agreed to a meeting and it was to be on the Friday before lockdown but it was then cancelled.”
Cllr Larcombe replied: “My recollection was that you couldn’t make it.”
‘A great deal of hurt’
Cllr Reynolds commented: “No one offered to talk to me when I had all my problems the year before last, not one single person in the council. No one said to me ‘do you want to come in and talk about it, shall we see what we can resolve?’
“No, it had to go to the monitoring officer and I was left completely on the sideline, and I am never going to forget that, ever.”
Cllr Rob Smith – one of the newer members of the council – said: “There’s obviously a lot of issues that I don’t know about, that I haven’t been involved in, but I feel there’s been a lot of pain and grievance and a great deal of hurt at times.”
He suggested that the town clerk “facilitate a process in which some of these grievances, which are still clearly below the surface and not helping the council to function well, be resolved in another forum”.
The town clerk said he would always advocate holding internal discussions when there was a good chance of reaching some sort of agreement, but it was not always an easy process as one party often felt aggrieved by any decision made.
Mr Wright continued: “I wouldn’t want to bother the monitoring officer about every member issue because it adversely affects the reputation of this council.
“One of the first things I did when I joined this council and became clerk, was to go and see the monitoring officer and he pleaded with me to deal with things because half the complaints he was receiving were from Lyme Regis only.
“That was the situation nine years ago. We don’t want that sort of reputation so I am always happy to engage.”
In wrapping up the discussion, Cllr Larcombe refused to allow Cllr Kelsey Ellis to speak further on the matter, which Cllr Michaela Ellis – her mother – argued was unfair as she said Cllr Larcombe had spoken twice on the subject himself.
Cllr Larcombe said Cllr Kelsey Ellis had already spoken three times and they needed to move on with the meeting.
Ahead of the vote on changes to the code of conduct, Cllr Reynolds said: “It’s absolute rubbish, it doesn’t work and I won’t be voting on it.”
However, other members agreed to the changes in line with national policy.