Just over a month after the Oundle Town Council was described as having the ability and capacity to be ‘a beacon council nationally’, the council fell apart in mid-February, leaving a bare minimum to carry on the statutory functions of the council.
Following allegations of misconduct, dramatic public resignations and an online petition, the future of Oundle Town Council now lies in the hands of the electorate. After an aborted attempt at a full election in which only one out of 12 nomination papers was declared valid, there remain eight vacant council seats to be elected on July 28.
In a shock move at a council meeting on February 16, six of the 14 councillors stood down in protest at alleged code of conduct violations by eight members of the council. Prior to this, two councillors had resigned for personal reasons, followed by a third, also for personal reasons.
Those that resigned in protest said that they felt unable to remain on the council after a decision made at a December meeting about how to benchmark the council with respect to salary grades was rescinded one month later at the January meeting. The eight councillors who had proposed that the decision be rescinded and reviewed were accused of having met privately to form the proposal, thereby undermining the function of the council.
The council was declared ‘dysfunctional’, but suggestions for mediation or a governance review were rejected, and instead the resignations were made amidst impassioned speeches and expressions of no confidence from the public gallery.
The dispute arose after a proposal was tabled by a group of eight councillors to rescind and review again the council’s earlier decision made in December to grade the council as profile 4, up from profile 3. The initial decision was part of a review of the council’s administrative structure. To determine appropriate salary grades, advice was sought about the council’s profile from Danny Moody of the Northamptonshire Association of Local Councils, who recommended that the council fit the criteria for a ‘large town’ at profile 4.
The councillors who rescinded said that they felt that they had not been fully informed of their options when upgrading the council profile.
David Chapple said: ‘It wasn’t entirely clear to us where Danny Moody got the information from in order to reach that conclusion, bearing in mind that some of things that he concluded appeared to be based on inaccurate information. That information should have come from the Council’s Operation Management Committee. As it happens, information was given that doesn’t appear to be entirely complete and doesn’t appear to be entirely understood.’
In particular, questions were raised about the size of the council’s budget and the number of full-time equivalent staff that the council employed. It appeared to the majority that the decision should be rescinded pending further research, allowing more time to analyse the facts and for more discussion with Danny Moody.
‘I don’t consider Oundle to be a large town. I was there when we went from profile 2 to 3. I’d always understood that a large town is not the size of Oundle,’ said David Chapple.
‘We seemed to accept it quickly because it was almost because we had made an undertaking that we would accept it. But when it came to the point, we weren’t given any more evidence than before we started,’ said councillor Val Chesser.
In the immediate days following the December meeting, council staff were informed about the plans and believed that they would soon be receiving details of revised and increased salaries in addition to a new operational structure. As a result, the proposal to rescind and review the profile 4 decision caused confusion and upset.
One member of the team at The Hub contributed to the debate on Facebook: ‘When the tier 4 was revealed to us at our meeting I felt a great sense of pride and after all the hard work that we all put in, a great result. Would this decision to rescind the tier four have implications on our jobs? Would we indeed have jobs? The 8 councillors have caused a lot of unwanted stress.’
Interim Clerk, Hanneke Soans said: ‘When Danny Moody reported that we were a ‘forward-looking council’, we felt proud. It was an achievement that the work of the council and the success of the Fletton House move was being recognised.’
In February, David Chapple told the Chronicle: ‘I fear there has been miscommunication and therefore misunderstanding. Profile 4 is nothing to do about how well or badly the Hub runs or anything else. The discussion had absolutely no impact on the Hub or Hub staff. The move to a profile 4 does not affect the operation of the council… [It] is purely to do with how you remunerate the clerk according to the scales.’
However, when the proposal was made to rescind the decision to move to profile 4, it was not clear to the staff that this was an isolated proposal that did not affect the other decisions about staff terms and conditions that had been voted on at the December meeting. ‘We were under the impression that everything that had been discussed about our jobs was being rescinded,’ Hanneke Soans said.
The clerk, Debra Harper, upon receiving notice of the proposition, wrote to the councillors responsible for it, requesting information. They acknowledged her email, but advised that a response prior to the meeting at which the proposition would be discussed, would not be appropriate.
In her resignation remarks, former councillor Ann Fitzgerald criticised the way it had been handled, and defended the clerk: ‘This is a cynical attempt to cut her pay rise. I value her service and am deeply offended by this. The Clerk is broken.’
David Chapple said there had never been any intention that the proposition would impact the clerk, and he had thought that this had been communicated to her by the Mayor. ‘We submitted two proposals. We said nothing about wanting to rescind the decisions about the estates or finance officers, which were entirely independent of the level 4 process. Not one councillor suggested that the review of the level 4 status should in any way impact on the clerk. That’s never been suggested. It would have had to be in the propositions for it to be changed.’
The councillors who signed the proposition insist that agreement on the proposition grew organically during informal discussions over the course of the month. David Chapple explained that there is a standing order that allows four councillors who want a decision reviewed to call for it to be put back on the agenda for review.
‘What ultimately happened is there were more than four. That it would actually make sense that instead of 4 people signing the document, we could demonstrate that there was a majority, and therefore 8 people signed it. When I walked into that meeting, I was not clear how many of the 6, if any, might in fact support that. I hadn’t sought to discuss it with them, for no sort of hidden, malicious reason, for the simple reason that I could see that there was a majority already.’
After this newly-formed majority tabled their proposition at the meeting on Tuesday 19th January, relations between the councillors broke down, and the eight were accused of unprofessional behaviour.
Former councillor Julie Grove said: ‘My position has always been clear that the mechanism of being able to rescind a decision, quite rightly and legitimately exists. What I disagreed with was the process and manner in which the eight councillors undertook the rescission and their subsequent refusal to discuss their reasons for both the method and impact on council staff and morale.’
Six councillors later resigned at the February meeting, and used their resignations to strongly urge the remaining councillors to stand down, in order to allow a full re-election to resolve the issues of broken relations.
Cllr Oakes admitted, ‘We could have done it better’, but he remained bewildered about the fallout from the proposition. ‘It was so simple. It was not a conspiracy. I never thought it would come to this. It was a simple matter of going – are we level 4, no I don’t think we are.’
After this dramatic stand-off, the council meetings began to attract significant attention from local residents, and a Change.org petition was launched to ‘Allow Us to Rebuild Our Town Council’. Discussion and debate generated a lot of traffic on a variety of Facebook pages.
Whilst Facebook can be a very positive tool for communicating within the community, it can also prove to be a malicious tool. Miscommunication of facts can easily spiral out of control into personal attacks and defamatory statements. Comments such as ‘We just want the crooked ones gone. That don’t care for Oundle’ can easily escalate into references to ‘selfish, self-important twonks’ and ‘dysfunctional and lazy individuals.’
One anonymous user even posted on an online forum: ‘OUNDLE TOWN COUNCIL (UK) IS CORRUPT Please HELP I would like help to get information on the other councillors, anything that would be used to prosecute them or ridicule them in to leaving the council’ [sic].
The post, which received no public responses, just shows how easily open debate online can escalate into smear campaigns.
Councillor Neville Oakes expressed his personal upset at the social media campaign: ‘I feel a bit emotional about this. I’ve poured my heart into this town over eight years, and David for thirty.’
Val Chesser said that she was deeply offended by the accusations: ‘What gets me is that it is trial by social media.’
The councillors are standing behind their decision not to resign, because they have served on the council for many years and feel well-equipped to deal with the everyday issues that arise around the town. They had been elected in the 2015 election and had committed to serving a four year term.
If the entire council resigned, East Northamptonshire Council would have taken over local business until a new council could have been formed.
David Chapple described the extent of his commitment to the council: ‘I couldn’t count the number of hours that I have spent on various things for the council, attending god knows what number of meetings, speaking at public enquiries and goodness knows what all else. I don’t do it for me, I do it for a town, because I love the town. And it is very, very depressing when you are being treated as if you are worse than goodness knows what, by people who by and large have not the faintest idea of what the issue was.’
Mrs Soans said: ‘The staff are the innocent victims of all this. All the history and experience that had been gathered by the previous councillors has been wiped out. We have to start again. I’m looking forward to a fresh start, but it will be a huge amount of work.’
The uneasiness surrounding the town council in recent weeks has had, at times, the potential to breed an unpleasant environment within Oundle, but it seems that through community spirit, the council can soon be rebuilt.
In December, Danny Moody praised Oundle Town Council for its work over many years, saying, ‘I have known Oundle Town Council for nine years and it has always been forward thinking and progressive, but recent developments show that it has the ability and capacity to be one of the leading parish or town councils in the county and a beacon council nationally.’
Hopefully, all the attention garnered on social media will encourage more people to stand for election this summer, and a contested election will bring new volunteers to contribute to the everyday running of the town.
By Francesca Coates – 11 May 2016