The incident happened during a virtual gathering of the council’s planning committee last December when Cllr Barrie Yates suggested that three of its members had a conflict of interest in an item on the agenda and should not vote on the matter.
The situation culminated in the Conservative councillor claiming that one of the trio had not properly declared what he said was a “pecuniary”, or financial, interest – and indicating that he was going to get the police involved there and then.
Labour committee member James Flannery – the target of the accusation – said in response to an earlier suggestion by Cllr Yates of the need for a police investigation that he did not want “to hear that kind of threat again”. But that prompted Cllr Yates to produce a mobile phone and declare: “It’s not a threat – I’m doing it now.”
The veteran politician – who has been a member of South Ribble Borough Council for 30 years and has sat on its planning committee for 28 of them – has been ordered by the authority’s cross-party standards committee to undergo training in the code of conduct for elected members.
However, Cllr Yates - who represents Samlesbury and Walton – is now making a complaint of “maladministration” against the council for the way in which it has handled the disciplinary process surrounding the affair.
He has referred the matter to the Local Government Ombudsman and told the Lancashire Post that the procedures followed by the authority were “flawed, unfair, biased, not independent or objective” – and added that he was “a whistleblower”.
The standards committee concluded that Cllr Yates - who did not actually make the threatened police call - had breached the code of conduct by “failing to treat Cllr Flannery with respect” and by “bullying” him and fellow planning committee members, Labour’s Will Adams and Liberal Democrat Harold Hancock.
The committee disputed the suggestion that Cllr Yates’ move to call the police was done “as a joke to make a point”, while also finding that Cllrs Flannery, Adams and Hancock did not have a pecuniary interest in the planning application – and so “would not have committed a criminal offence as alleged”.
In addition to the requirement for extra training, the standards committee ordered that the outcome of the hearing – which took place earlier this month – should be reported to a public meeting of the full council.
That set the stage on Wednesday evening for a litany of condemnation of Cllr Yates’s actions, during which he remained largely silent.
Deputy Labour council leader Mick Titherington – who brought the initial complaint against Cllr Yates – said that he was “appalled and ashamed for the council” by the scenes at the planning committee.
Acknowledging that he had himself taken part in “a number of heated debates” during his time on the authority, Cllr Titherington added: ”When you threaten..to call the police, when you accuse [other councillors] of criminal acts – without any evidence, by the way – I think it’s gone too far.”
Cllr Matthew Tomlinson, cabinet member for finance, said that a “line was crossed” during the incident – and warned that democratic debate had to be done “within certain parameters”.
“I was dumbfounded that in a public, quasi-judicial committee…a member would wave his mobile phone around [and] claim that he was going to report another member to the police, in the face of the clear and unequivocal advice of our legal team that his complaint had no ground,” Cllr Tomlinson added.
At the planning committee hearing, Cllr Yates had suggested that Cllrs Flannery, Adams and Hancock – who are also members of Penwortham Town Council – had a pecuniary interest in an application by that authority for permission to convert the former Penwortham library into an arts centre.
Legal services manager Dave Whelan responded that the three “arguably…have a personal interest”, but that he did not consider any of them to have a financial interest – and that there was nothing to stop them voting. Cllr Hancock had declared a personal, non-prejudicial, interest at the outset of the meeting, while Cllr Adams did so immediately before he addressed the committee.
The standards committee concluded that Cllr Yates had “a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between a disclosable pecuniary interest and a personal interest”.
However, commenting to the Post, Cllr Yates said: “I suggested they should declare an interest and take no part [in the debate], as it was contrary to the code of conduct [for] South Ribble councillors. I was correct regarding this matter - the council officer advising the committee gave wrong advice on this point.
“Cllr Hancock correctly declared an interest and withdrew.”
But the standards committee concluded that Cllr Hancock’s move was made “as a result of Cllr Yates’ conduct and thereby Cllr Yates wrongfully influenced the decision”.
In an unusual twist at a full council meeting in January, the authority resolved to remove the long-serving member from the planning committee during what is normally a perfunctory vote on membership. Cllr Yates now claims that that decision undermined the disciplinary process which followed – leading to his complaint to the Ombudsman.
“All the controlling group of councillors…voted to remove me. The motion was carried [and] I was accused, tried, convicted and sentenced – ignoring the proper discipline procedures of the council and without the chance to properly put my case,” Cllr Yates told the Post.
He added that it was “impossible for me to have a fair, independent, unbiased and objective hearing of the complaint” at the standards committee, because the three Labour members sitting on it had “already found me guilty in the debate in full council and removed me from the planning committee – a power the standards committee did not have”.
“I was put in double jeopardy, tried and convicted twice,” Cllr Yates said.
That issue was raised at the standards hearing, where members resolved that the vote at full council “could be distinguished from [the committee’s consideration] of this complaint, as there was, on this occasion, a detailed report to inform the decision”.
South Ribble leader Paul Foster condemned Cllr Yates’ complaint to the Ombudsman at this week’s full council meeting, for what he said was an accusation of “political bias” against its most senior staff – including the chief executive.
“If an officer of this council was found guilty of bullying and harassment, that’s gross misconduct. That officer would probably be subject to the…strictest of sanctions and, quite possibly, would…be sacked.
“Unfortunately, because the sanctions regime in England [for councillors] has no teeth, we can’t dismiss a councillor for gross misconduct, but we can look at his group [to] do something about it,” Cllr Foster said.
Conservative opposition group leader Karen Walton said that she had “always been clear that we would respect the decision of the standards committee – and so we support the sanctions…for Cllr Yates to receive training in the code of conduct, because we all want to be able to show respect and consideration for each other”.
Cllr Yates returned to the planning committee after a three-month absence when he was nominated by his group in May and his appointment – and that of all other committee members for the 2021/22 municipal year – was voted through at the council’s annual general meeting.
Cllr Walton told the Post that she had no plans to remove him from the role following the standards committee ruling – because that was not one of its recommendations.
The standards report did conclude that the removal of Cllr Yates from the planning committee after the incident was a “mitigating factor” in the case, as was an initial apology, which was restated at the hearing. However, the standards committee noted that his decision to defend the proceedings “undermined the sincerity of the apologies”.
Meanwhile, the full council unanimously supported a further recommendation from the standards committee for a review of the local code of conduct for members, with a view to simplifying [it] and aligning [it] with legislation and the recommendations of the Office for Standards in Public Life”.
In a statement issued after the meeting, South Ribble Borough Council’s deputy chief executive Chris Sinnott said: “We have had notification that Cllr Yates intends to make a complaint with the ombudsman.
“We will follow the process and provide any information they need to help resolve the situation.”
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