A prominent Torbay councillor bullied a council officer and ran “roughshod” over council rules in a Zoom meeting, in scenes reminscient of the notorious ‘Jackie Weaver’ incident at another council.
Joe Ives, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk
An investigation into how Hazel Foster (Conservatives, St Marychurch) chaired a new housing review panel meeting has concluded she brought the council into disrepute.
It also found she used her position to bring about an advantage for herself and other Conservatives.
But Cllr Foster believes that council procedures are at fault.
The judgments against her were made at a marathon four-hour standards hearing of Torbay Council on Tuesday [10 May], which considered an independent report into Cllr Foster’s actions at the council’s first meeting of a new housing crisis review panel last September.
Following an administrative mix-up, the make-up of the housing panel was top heavy with Conservatives, which didn’t reflect the political situation at the council overall. Torbay is run by a coalition of Lib Dems and independents.
Instead the panel mistakenly was listed as comprising three Liberal Democrats, two independents and seven Conservative councillors.
Committee chair Cllr Foster, who is married to the area’s MP Kevin Foster, refused to accept a change that would have seen it balanced more in line with the overall council.
But some Tory councillors, including Mrs Foster, felt that changing the membership with the Zoom meeting underway was an unfair attempt to move the goalposts after the selection process had finished, and limit Conservative involvement.
That led to a fierce hour-long debate over panel membership that became so aggravated a council clerk became visibly distressed and left the meeting. Ignoring please from fellow councillors and senior officers, Mrs Foster repeatedly attempted to pass a vote on the membership of the council that had been printed on the original meeting report.
The council’s chief executive Anne-Marie Bond, a lawyer by training, was eventually drafted into the online meeting to advise.
The meeting eventually went ahead without the panel’s membership being agreed.
However by this stage, the discussion of the Bay’s housing crisis proved a footnote to the bitter argument preceeding it.
Following the meeting, six councillors – five Liberal Democrats and one Independent – complained, along with the council’s director of place Kevin Mowat, sparking an investigation.
Unlike other public Torbay Council meetings held over Zoom at the time, and despite requests by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, the video has yet to be published.
Councillors on the standards committee agreed with the independent investigation’s findings that Cllr Foster bullied the officer and that she had ploughed on despite clear signs that her actions had caused upset.
The officer in question told the investigator she felt bullied and pressured to take on actions that were beyond her remit.
Cllr Foster said: “I’m really really saddened by the clerks’ comments,” and that she holds the officer “in the highest regard.”
She said that initially she had not known the clerk was upset and that, later, when she did realise this, she did not know the reasons why.
Mrs Foster said she felt it was her duty as chair of the panel to continue with the meeting and get the vote on its membership “out the way” regardless.
After becoming upset, the clerk had turned off her Zoom camera. Cllr Foster told the hearing that this did not indicate to her that something was wrong.
She explained: “As you know during these Zoom meetings there can be many occasions when a screen would go blank. Had somebody come to the door? Had she left the kettle on? There can be many reasons why.”
Councillor Judith Mills (Churston with Galmpton, Independent) pointed out that by this stage several councillors had commented on the clerk’s distress.
Cllr Foster believed the clerk’s behaviour could be because of personal reasons unrelated to the meeting.
Th at was rejected by the independent investigator, hwo said: “The clerk clearly stated that she was distressed and in difficulty.
“I don’t see how anybody would have not been aware of that.”
Councillor Jermaine Atiya-Alla (Lib Dems, Ellacombe) criticised Cllr Foster, saying: “You did not show any emotional empathy at that time.”
Cllr Foster countered that she was wronged too. “No empathy was shown to me,” she said.
The scrutiny committee agreed that Cllr Foster had not acted respectfully to other councillors and officers.
The independent investigator said he had watched the “invaluable” Zoom recording of the meeting “many times” and concluded that there were many instances where Cllr Foster had shown disrespect.
He said: “It appeared to me that Cllr Foster didn’t want to hear what anybody had to say.
“Her line was always ‘let’s move to the vote’…there didn’t appear to be any respect for what anybody said, whether it be fellow members or experienced officers in the room.”
Cllr Atiya-Alla argued that Mrs Foster had shown “ a complete lack of respect” to the clerk and other members. “To me, it seems like you just didn’t care about what anyone else had to say…and you were running roughshod on the rules.”
Foster admitted she was rushing the vote at points but this was because she felt it was very important to move the meeting along.
As reported by the local democracy reporting service in September last year, the meeting had echoes of the infamous ‘Jackie Weaver’ incident at Handforth Parish Council.
Both Torbay council’s scrutiny committee and the independent report found that the episode and its subsequent media coverage brought the council into disrepute.
Cllr Foster said that the excerpt from an article presented in the report did not represent the full write-up.
The independent investigator disagreed, saying:“ I don’t think it is at all misleading. It is a very poignant point that the article highlights.” He also pointed to the fact that a link to the full article was included in his report.
Cllr Foster said her actions did not harm the reputation of the council. “I believe that when residents here in Torbay – or anywhere – go to the vote they do expect their councillor to stand up to what they feel is correct and the right thing to do”, she argued.
“On this occasion, I was following the agenda and felt that was the right thing to do.”
Cllr Foster denied seeking advantage by forcing through a Conservative majority on the housing review panel and that she had not known proportionality was required.
“I strongly reject this assumption”, she continued. “I find that it is a completely a matter of opinion. [There] is no factual evidence.”
She said the claims were “a slur” on her character and that as no formal decisions were made by the panel, there was no advantage to be gained by a Tory majority.
The independent investigator rejected that, noting the panel would have had influence and so it would have been advantageous to Cllr Foster for the panel to be disproportionately made up of Conservatives.
The complainants had initially suggested that Cllr Foster had attempted to compromise the impartiality of those who work for, or on behalf of the council and that she had wasted the resources of the council.
In the end, the scrutiny committee and the independent investigator agreed she had not.
Nevertheless, the scrutiny committee did find that Cllr Foster’s breaches of the code of conduct elsewhere required significant sanctions.
Cllr Foster was told that she must carry out ‘acceptable behaviour training,’ and that she write an apology letter to the clerk affected by her behaviour, the head of governance and the council’s director of place.
She must also make an unequivocal apology for her conduct at a meeting of the full council on Thursday 21 July.
The committee said the leader of the council, Steve Darling (Lib Dems, Barton with Watcombe) should be “recommended to consider” suspending Cllr Foster from her post as the council’s domestic abuse and sexual violence champion until her acceptable behaviour training is completed.
It was also decided that the committee would recommend to the leader of the Conservative group, David Thomas (Preston), that Cllr Foster should be suspended from the committees she serves on, and from outside bodies at which she represents the council.
However Cllr Foster will be allowed to carry on as a councillor representing St Marychurch.
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Foster accepted she had made mistakes although wasn’t entirely in agreement with the hearing’s findings.
“I’m disappointed it’s come to this”, she said.
“I see it was all about a procedure that had failed prior to the meeting that put me in that unfortunate position that I was asked to tell five councillors [the extra Tory members] that they couldn’t be on that committee.
“I felt that was unfortunate that the procedure had left me in that position.”
She said she hoped the council would make changes to the way meetings are conducted so no one else would be placed in a similar position to her in the future.
She disagreed with the standards committee’s finding that she had used her position as committee chair for her own advantage.
Regarding the clerk who was upset, she said: “I completely apologise. I have a lot of respect for her. She’s an excellent officer and I will completely apologise for my actions or anything I said that made her feel that she was upset and had to leave the meeting.”
Cllr Foster said she will abide by the sanctions decided upon by the scrutiny committee.
Separately, Conservative group leader councillor David Thomas faces a hearing into allegations regarding his own behaviour at the same meeting.
An independent report has concluded that he broke the council’s code of conduct twice, in attempting to use his position improperly to secure an advantage or disadvantage and bringing his office or the council into disrepute.
Cllr Thomas’ hearing will be held this Friday.