Taxpayers fork out £23k for probe into parish council 'bullying' row

An investigation into a row at a parish council will cost taxpayers around £20,000. Councillor Angela Drakakis-Smith is set to be 'censured' by Betley, Balterley and Wrinehill Parish Council after she was found to have breached the members' code of conduct.

The recommendation from the standards hearings panel at Newcastle Borough Council comes after a lengthy solicitor's investigation into numerous complaints against Cllr Drakakis-Smith, including claims she 'bullied' the former parish clerk Gwyn Griffiths. And the borough council has now issued the parish council with a bill for £23,865, including around £4,000 VAT, covering the cost of the standards investigation.

The borough council, which is responsible for dealing with standards complaints at parish councils within its boundaries, commissioned a specialist employment solicitor at Analysis Legal to look into the complaints. But the parish council is questioning whether it should have to pay the cost of the investigation, which is more than its current reserves.

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READ: Councillor accused of 'bullying' clerk as multiple complaints lodged - Betley councillor Angela Drakakis-Smith has rejected the allegations and says she was subjected to a 'hostile environment'

Mr Griffiths, three councillors and a member of the public made formal complaints against Cllr Drakakis-Smith in 2022 and 2023, saying that she had breached the code through behaviour such as bombarding the clerk with emails and requests for information, and continually questioning the accuracy of his minutes.

Cllr Drakakis-Smith denied that what she did amounted to bullying and claimed that she herself had been subjected to a 'hostile environment' after joining the parish council in 2022.

But hearing panel members agreed in full with Analysis Legal's findings, contained within an 80-page report, that she had breached the code by failing to show respect for others, bullying and harassing Mr Griffiths, and bringing the parish council into disrepute. The panel also agreed that Cllr Drakakis-Smith had been 'inappropriately sarcastic and disrespectful' to other parish councillors.

While Cllr Drakakis-Smith's offer of an apology to Mr Griffiths was considered a mitigating factor, the fact that she had not accepted that a 'whole range' of her behaviour had been in breach of the code was an aggravating factor.

The panel has recommended that the parish council formally censures Cllr Drakakis-Smith, and removes her from any external appointments or positions of responsibility. The panel also recommended that its decision be formally reported to the parish council at its next meeting and that letters to the council and to Cllr Drakakis-Smith be made public.

During the standards hearing, Cllr Drakakis-Smith raised concerns over the cost of the investigation and said she had held back from making complaints herself, as she believed disputes could be 'dealt with internally'. She said: "The monitoring officer suggested that making a complaint would be expensive and counterproductive. I have refuted all the allegations made against me by the three councillors and those made against me by the Betley resident. It is the complainants and the chair who insisted on taking the matters further. It is costing residents in Betley parish £23,000 and counting."

The complaints were referred to the monitoring officer at the borough council, who then commissioned Analysis Legal to carry out the investigation. This involved interviews with all the complainants, the parish council chairman and Cllr Drakakis-Smith, along with examination of documentary evidence including emails and minutes.

As the parish council is a separate organisation, the hearings panel can only make recommendations rather than impose sanctions directly on Cllr Drakakis-Smith. The parish council is due to discuss the recommendations from the hearings panel at an extraordinary meeting on May 17.

According to the minutes of the last parish council meeting last month, councillors expressed concerns over the invoice from the borough, as they had 'certainly not authorised the expenditure'. Parish council chair Robert Bettley-Smith said he was discussing the matter with the borough council.

A spokesman for Newcastle Borough Council said: "Betley, Balterley and Wrinehill Parish Council is an independent organisation. However, because it stands within the boundaries of Newcastle Borough Council any matters arising under the Members' Code of Conduct are referred to the monitoring officer at the borough council.

"The cost to taxpayers of dealing with the investigation would be in the region of £20,000, which reflects the time taken for Analysis Legal to consider the extensive submissions made by those involved and to write the report. This figure does not include the time of staff at Newcastle Borough Council."

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