Action could be taken against the press secretary of north Northumberland MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan after a two-day hearing ruled that she had bullied Berwick Town Council’s clerk, disclosed confidential information and brought the group into disrepute.
Coun Georgina Hill, a member of Berwick Town Council, was the subject of a Northumberland County Council standards committee meeting last week, following complaints made against her alleged conduct by Coun Gavin Jones and clerk Sue Finch – who have both resigned from the organisation.
The committee deemed that Coun Hill failed to comply with four aspects of the town council’s Code of Conduct. However, other accusations against her were not proven.
Following the decision, the committee has recommended the town council imposes penalties against Coun Hill, including reprimanding her and removing her from her role as finance and resource committee chairman for 12 months.
There is no right of appeal over the decision and the town council is holding an emergency general meeting on Tuesday, September 8, at 6pm, to consider and decide upon the recommendations. It is expected to take place in the Town Hall.
Today, Mrs Trevelyan released a statement. She said: “I will be reviewing the report and findings of the standards hearing to get a full understanding of why the panel ruled against Ms Hill and rejected the arguments submitted in her defence which included that she was acting as a whistleblower. I understand that the vote on the bullying charge was very tight.
“If I was to conclude that Ms Hill would benefit from training in any personal development areas then I would provide that for her.
“I have never had any cause to be anxious over her working for me which has always been conducted in a capable, professional and timely manner. She has always been an important and reliable part of my team who is passionate about representing and working for her community.”
In an earlier statement, Coun Hill said that, although the decision was not entirely unexpected, it has left her with a ‘sickening sense of injustice’ and to be labelled a bully was ‘galling’.
The committee deemed that Coun Hill had been disrespectful, bullying/intimidatory, acted in a manner which brought the council into disrepute and disclosed information which was confidential/where disclosure is prohibited by law.
Among the findings, it was ruled that she had brought her office and authority into disrepute by likening the council to North Korea in a Facebook post on March 27, 2014, and referred to her fellow councillors as ‘rogue and manipulated’ on May 29, 2014.
The committee said that Coun Hill ‘failed to treat former town clerk Ms Finch with respect’ in relation to Facebook posts on May 29 and June 18 last year, as well as in comments made in a national newspaper at the start of 2014.
It was declared that this ‘pattern of public criticism’ constituted ‘bullying and harassment’ and that the comments in the paper implied that Ms Finch was corrupt – an allegation which, according to the standards committee report, Coun Hill conceded during the hearing had ‘no foundation’.
It was deemed that her behaviour was ‘an attack on the former town clerk’s integrity’ and certain comments made by Coun Hill were described as being ‘entirely inappropriate and a slur on the reputation of the town council’.
The committee found that Coun Hill ‘disclosed confidential information which was exempt information’ through comments on Facebook and these were ‘not of sufficient public interest that disclosure of the information outweighed the public interest in maintaining the exemption’.
But, it was ruled that she had not failed to comply with other aspects of the Code, including using council resources in accordance with its requirements and the disclosure of interests relating to financial interests of a friend, relative or close associate.
The committee has recommended that the town council issue Coun Hill with a ‘formal censure’ – ie a reprimand – and that she be removed, or remain removed, from any position she holds as chairman or vice-chairman of all the town council’s committees/sub-committees for 12 months. She is currently chairman of the finance and resource committee.
It is also recommended to the town council that training be arranged for Coun Hill and all members of the group in relation to the Code of Conduct and bullying/harassment.
Coun Hill said: “For two years, I have fought for greater transparency in the town council and sought answers, and have been attacked like a whistleblower. There needs to be reform at this level of local government. No proper mechanism for external intervention exists. There needs to be a review of the standards system.
“It stills seems to be primarily used for political purposes and to indulge over-powerful state officials playing the bullying card, when challenged, as opposed to upholding Nolan principles and supporting the rights of councillors striving to ensure openness.”
She wants to play a key role in the town council, ‘even if handicapped by sanctions that may be imposed on me’.
After the verdict, Coun Jones said that bullying was ‘unacceptable behaviour’.