Calls for district council leadership to ‘consider positions’ in heated dispute over staff bullying claims

No bullying is acceptable. It is a pity it has reared its head again in EDDC, hopefully it will now be dealt with by the new administration. Many will recall the attacks Claire Wright suffered and many others will remember being humiliated when making public statements to planning and council meetings with no right of reply. – Owl

Francesca Evans sidmouth.nub.news 

Leading members of East Devon District Council were asked to consider their positions this week, during a passionate discussion on claims made by council staff that they were “bullied at work”.

The three-hour debate followed a staff survey carried out in January and February of this year, which raised claims that new councillors and the new political leadership at East Devon was “seriously mistreating officers” and “unnecessarily micro-managing and causing extra workload”.

There were also concerns over increased staff absence due to depression, stress and anxiety during the latter months of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that six per cent of respondents said they were “sometimes bullied at work”.

The leader of the council, Cllr Paul Arnott, who represents Colyton, said he was “certain my Cabinet are innocent of any bullying”.

In a report on the survey results, East Devon’s chief executive Mark Williams said he had already written to councillors highlighting his concern about an “oppressive and menacing” online work environment that some officers had experienced from “certain councillors”.

He said the issues facing the council were “very serious”.

Giving the background to the survey, Mr Williams stated in his report that EDDC had traditionally been an organisation where staff morale had been high.

In January 2020 the council received Platinum Investors In People status, which was the highest level achievable, and a previous staff survey carried out in June 2020 said there was an “optimistic feeling” within the council at the end of the first lockdown.

The latest staff survey in January/February 2021 comes after a new political leadership took over EDDC.

Independents took control of the council following the election in May 2019, after 45 years of Conservative rule.

But the Independent Group, led by Cllr Ben Ingham, were then overthrown by a new Democratic Alliance in May 2020, led by Cllr Paul Arnott and made up of councillors from the East Devon Alliance, Liberal Democrats, Green Party and some independents.

Mr Williams – who himself admitted to feeling bullied at work during this week’s Scrutiny Committee meeting – made several references in his report to “new councillors/new political leadership” and “change in political culture”.

Speaking at this week’s meeting, Independent councillor Geoff Pook (Beer & Branscombe) said “the most upsetting and serious claims” from staff did stem from last year’s change in administration and he posed several questions to Cllr Arnott.

“Does the leader accept the outcome of the report and that 18 of our staff state that the new political leadership are seriously mistreating our officers, which is very stressful? This includes seven members who say they feel bullied, intimidated and are being harassed.

“Does the leader agree that this is totally unacceptable?

“Does the leader agree that, as leader, he is totally responsible for the deplorable actions of his administration?

“Does the leader agree that those responsible must consider their positions and, as leader, he should address this? And does the leader agree he holds ultimate responsibility for the actions and behaviour of his team and should perhaps consider his own position?”

‘No proof where problems are coming from’

In response, Cllr Arnott said he would offer a “blanket no” to all of Cllr Pook’s questions regarding the political leadership, adding that the phrasing ‘new councillors/new political leadership’ used in the report was “unfortunate”, as new councillors came from all political parties.

“There is no proof or indication from where problems are coming,” he added.

Cllr Arnott continued: “This has been one of the most challenging times for local government in our history and I could not be more proud of our staff and officers, which I have said repeatedly and publicly.”

He added that the leadership had taken concerns over the mental health of staff “extremely seriously”.

Cllr Arnott said that there had been issues within the council prior to the new administration, using his own experiences in Exmouth as an example.

“Exmouth has been toxic beyond belief for many years before my time,” he said.

“I came in and raised it through this very committee and we then set up the Exmouth Queen’s Drive Delivery Group, which I have chaired with patience and courtesy and removed the poison from that.

“I have protected officers and I have I think created a peace there where there was not a peace before, and involved the public. I would be astonished if any officers had any criticism of that whatsoever; it was a model of sorting out what had been previous problem.”

He continued: “There is another side to this coin and we need to understand the members’ perspective as well and I hope Scrutiny comes forward with a set of policies and engagements, and I would be very pleased to present my own evidence and those of my Cabinet.

“I am certain that they are innocent of any of these allegations of bullying, which are not identified in this report as being anything to do with councillors.”

New councillors are ‘across all political groups’

Independent East Devon Alliance councillor John Loudoun (Sidmouth Rural) also raised concerns over the use of the phrase ‘new councillors/new political leadership’ in the report, describing it as a “broad phrase” which conflates two sets of members.

He pointed out that 24 new councillors across all political groups joined the council after the May 2019 elections.

“We should all look at what we’re doing, the implications of what we’re doing and how we need to change. I hope each group leader will be honest, look at their group and say ‘can we do things better?’” he said.

Former council leader Ben Ingham (Woodbury & Lympstone), a former Independent who has joined the Conservative party since losing his position to Cllr Arnott, also called for the new leadership to consider their positions.

He said the feeling of optimism shown in the June 2020 survey had gone and had been replaced with stress and depression, with many staff continuing to work from home despite suffering from mental health issues.

“What an appalling situation for us to be in – six months of vindictive disorientation and poor leadership,” he commented.

“Bullying in the workplace is against the law. The Cabinet and leadership of this council have a lot to answer for and should consider their positions.”

Conservative councillor Ian Hall (Axminster) asked chief executive Mark Williams whether he felt bullying was still ongoing and whether he had ever felt personally bullied.

Mr Williams replied yes to both questions.

Cllr Hall went on to apologise if he had ever added to an officer’s workload during the pandemic, adding that if he was implicated in any harassment or bullying he would “stand aside because we cannot tolerate that sort of behaviour”.

Fellow Axminster councillor Andrew Moulding, who is leader of the Conservative group at East Devon, added: “The officers of this council have been exemplary over many years and are now being undermined by the current administration. This cannot continue and we must find a way of addressing the issue.”

What happens now?

After three hours of debate, the committee eventually agreed on four proposals put forward by Independent East Devon Alliance councillor Val Ranger (Newton Poppleford & Harpford). These were as follows:

1) To note the report and thank the chief executive.

2) To ask the chief executive to undertake a follow-up staff survey at a suitable future point.

3) Request the chief executive to discuss this survey data with the staff representatives and to feed back to portfolio holder for Council and Corporate Co-ordination the outcome and actions resulting from that engagement to form an action plan.

4) Recommend to the chief executive, members of the SMT and portfolio holder for Council and Co-ordination discuss this survey data and any other relevant information to identify what actions are necessary to address the four key points identified within the report:

– Workload, staff shortages, vacancies and management support for staff

– Home working and staff isolation

– Member conduct with staff

– Staff community cations

5) Ask the chief executive to update this committee in light of completion of the above four recommendations.

Cllr Ranger had initially proposed the phrase ‘member engagement’ be used instead of ‘member conduct’ under her fourth recommendation, but Mr Williams expressed concerns that this would come across as “tone deaf” to staff members who had been “exceptionally brave” in their responses to the survey, so it was agreed to change this.

Earlier in the meeting, Mr Williams warned councillors: “It doesn’t take a lot of time for a council to appear on the Secretary of State’s watch list as a council of interest.

“Traditionally it’s been councils that have got themselves into financial trouble but actually, if you look at the criteria the Secretary of State applies, financial trouble is one of them, dysfunctional relationships, poor corporate governance, and those types of matters particularly affecting the three statutory officers, is an area where the Secretary of State does show an interest.”

9 thoughts on “Calls for district council leadership to ‘consider positions’ in heated dispute over staff bullying claims

  1. The only person who should consider their position over this is WIlliams.
    Though his then council tried to keep recording equipment out of public meetings, enough still exist to show how unprofessional and partisan he was.He is the last person to make such unsubstantiated claims.

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    • Williams should not be allowed to go until all his activities have been fully understood.

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  2. If Mark Williams needs a reminder about what a dysfunctional local authority really looks like, he need look no further than this gem from the glory days of EDDC’s finest Tory administration – when, we presume, he felt more comfortable…

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  3. The disgraceful behaviour of Mark Williams, CEO of EDDC, described by one Budleigh correspondent, was in fact a regular occurrence. He often behaved in that way , turning to Mr Diviani or Cllr Moulding or whichever Tory happened to be occupying the chair beside him to mutter or jest whilst others tried to get important points over in their allotted time. So regular and disrespectful was his behaviour towards certain members of the Council and the public that one or two took to recording it.
    Of all the other comments on this posting, I can say there is nothing written here by Paul F, Mark Hawkins or David Daniel that I do not fully agree with or relate to.
    Much can be evidenced – and no doubt will be.
    In the years before this current administration, I witnessed intimidating behaviour from officers to councillor members .
    I witnessed bullying behaviour from council members to other council members .
    I believe such behaviour is a reflection upon the actions and behaviour of the CEO.
    Disrespectful attitudes towards the public in the past include officers deliberately obstructing the smooth process of FOIs, deliberately obstructing complaints made on being fed disinformation by officers.
    Some members of the community began to feel that deception and trickery was never far away.

    The public are right behind the current administration for acting with strength and decisiveness for the benefit of their communities.
    ” A new broom sweeps clean.”
    It must be an abrasive and uncomfortable experience for the bits of muck lodged in their old grooves, which were left undisturbed or challenged by the old brooms for years.

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  4. Phil Norrey, the Chief Executive of Devon County Council has always acted with great professionalism when I have seen him in meetings. It was therefore a great shock to me when I went in the afternoon of the November 27th 2018 to a meeting of the Strategic Planning committee to find EDDC’s Chief Executive, Mark Williams, lounging next to the Chairman Paul Diviani. They made many asides and many jokes together. What I found rude and insulting was that they enjoyed a “merry” conversation when Councillor Geoff Jung was speaking on the Glover Review of Designated Landscapes. It was obvious the pair had very different views to Councillor Jung. Yes, Paul Diviani would differ but should not a Chief Executive take a neutral stance in a meeting? Shouldn’t they show respect for the debate and those speaking? What message were they sending?

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    • This has not been my own experience. I have seen Chief Executive, Mark Williams, act completely unprofessionally on too may occasions to count. The example you use of snide asides between him and Paul Diviani was an all too common event. When such asides are criticising or making jokes at others expense it is utterly inappropriate, and when the other person has no recourse to counter those comments it is effectively abuse of position and bullying.

      And to disclose publicly a statement made confidentially to the police goes way beyond unprofessionalism!!

      Indeed, Senior Officers being overly chummy with the administration leadership (rather than being non-partisan except for the execution of the incumbent party’s policies approved by Council), is inappropriate because it undermines the ability for a new administration to trust that the same Senior Officers will give the same support to the execution of their policies. This is a well understood principle within the Government Civil Service – and should apply equally to local government. In some councils, the Senior Officers have the ethics and character to understand this. At EDDC, it appears the Senior Officers have had a Tory administration for so long, presumably believing that this would never change, that they have forgotten this principle and gone native / become partisan.

      As for showing respect for debate, in none of the meetings I attended (when it was a Conservative administration) did either Conservative chairs / leaders nor Senior Officers show any real respect for debate and democracy – in general terms they did everything they could to stifle debate and avoid transparency – using Section B inappropriately, having closed and un-minuted “forums” rather than committees, failing to follow FoI rules, limiting online availability of older council agendas, minutes and reports, being deliberately disruptive in supplying information in court actions etc.

      In short, the Senior Officers whilst under a Conservative administration were utterly unprofessional – in fact, a disgrace.

      Is it any wonder if those same Senior Officers are resistant to change, and characterise as bullying the attempts by the new administration to push through better standards against their active resistance??

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  5. In the light of current events in Scotland, where a dubious internal investigation cost the government there the best part of a million in a judicial review conceded on the grounds of apparent bias, where the investigating officer was apparently coaching two “complainants” before they even complained, it seems inappropriate that someone who considers himself a victim of bullying and has made complaints on that basis should be anywhere near undertaking a survey like this or any follow up work.
    Quite an improper undertaking on his part and short sighted of the committee to task him with taking his endeavours forward.
    I have been of the opinion, with some significant evidence, that the Chief Executive has for a number of years been too close to the previous Conservative administration and has on occasions been their comfort blanket, leading to him acting in a manner where he appeared to be overreaching his authority as correctly defined.
    If I am correct does that not make it rather likely that an incoming administration wishing to “do things properly” would seek to correct this tendency, a process which might prompt in the frustrated autocrat feelings of being bullied and micromanaged?
    Despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic I have observed a number of the burdens created by his chums moving towards resolution, for example Exmouth seafront as mentioned by Cllr Arnott and the return of Warren View playing fields to a community organisation following a disgraceful period of neglect since the eviction of previous tenants based on a number of falsehoods.
    Can I ask some pertinent questions?
    1) Is the gap between this and the previous survey referred to at the standard interval for such tasks, or has it been brought forward?
    2) Is there a standard format for these surveys or has any novel wording been introduced for this one?
    3) How does the reality of current events compare with that under his chums’ administration where minority group councillors were bullied into impotence, feeling unable to represent their constituents, and where departmental officers felt uncomfortable providing these councillors with truthful information?

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  6. It is so, so easy to claim that there is bullying when you don’t have to provide any evidence for it. Unsubstantiated smears like this, without ANY evidence, can only be considered a political smear campaign and sour grapes from e.g. Ben Ingham, an ex-council leader, who has amply demonstrated that he is himself completely untrustworthy by betraying the very principles he stood for when being elected. Before we have calls for councillors to “consider their positions”, let’s see some genuine and specific evidence of which councillors, from which political groups, have been specifically accused of bullying.

    (This is similar to claims in the US by GOP Republicans of massive election massaging by the Democratic Party. Whilst many believe these claims to be untrue, IMO they are partially true – there has been massive election massaging, but in fact by the Republican Party. The theory appears to be that by blaming the other party for actions you have been doing yourself, you create a pre-emptive attack which is then defended, creating a shield for your own underhand actions. Whether this case of accusations of bullying is in a similar vein has yet to be determined.)

    However, I can speak from personal experience of being bullied by the Chief Executive, Mark Williams, who insulted me in an aside to the Chairman, a remark that was picked up and amplified by the loudspeaker system, and which I had no means to refute.

    I was also present when the same Chief Executive publicly bullied Councillor Claire Wright in a Council meeting (having previously done so by email) by publicly disclosing a formal statement made to the police which they should (according to their own policies) have kept strictly confidential, but which somehow came into the possession of the Chief Executive, and which, as a highly experienced officer, he should have understood that he should A) have kept it confidential himself, and B) known just how inappropriate it is for a Chief Executive to adopt a partisan bias rather than remain apolitical himself.

    On another occasion I hand delivered a letter to my own Conservative Councillor at their home address, only to be bullied on their own doorstep.

    Several years ago I met face-to-face with an ex-council employee who detailed to me specific allegations of bullying, which I have no doubt whatsoever were true. These allegations were of the most serious nature involving use of bullying behaviours by both Senior Officers and Council Cabinet members in order to cover-up criminal activity that this employee was attempting to report. This person even showed me written evidence supporting their allegations. But despite formally reporting their claims, they were apparently swept under the carpet by the same Senior Officers who buried the evidence rather than reporting it to the police.

    I also heard of another potential criminal act by a Senior Officer which was never reported to the police because the councillor concerned was afraid of the bullying consequences if they did report it.

    Finally, I think that a proper trawl through the archives of EDW would find many, many allegations of bullying by previous administrations, many of which undoubtedly involve people who are still Councillors or Senior Officers. If we are going to start accusing people of bullying. then surely we should start there?

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  7. After so many years of operating under the old guard Tory regime it is no surprise to me that some officials, possibly in the more senior ranks, might find a change of culture quite a shock to the system. Especially when compounded by the strains of working under Covid restrictions.

    Change, often quite radical, happens regularly in central government and the person responsible for smoothing the change is the most senior public servant. In the case of EDDC that is the Chief Executive, Mark Williams.

    It is very clear that last May all sorts of obstacles, some administrative, were put in the way of holding the election of a new Chair and Leader.

    So I would like a simple answer to a simple question: how many days after that election elapsed before Mark Williams approached the new Leader Cllr Paul Arnott to welcome him and talk about the priorities for the new council?

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