Michelle Weir (Local Democracy Reporter)
MEA | 'Council appears to be in turmoil and we need to do something about it'
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has refused to make a public comment on the “absence of the Chief Executive and Deputy” despite repeated requests for an explanation at a meeting of the local authority on Monday evening.
The issue was raised by Bannside TUV Councillor Timothy Gaston who proposed standing orders be suspended to allow councillors to deal with the publication of a survey by trade union NIPSA over what he described as a “serious and damning report” regarding alleged bullying within the organisation and the “high level of absenteeism among the senior team, namely the absence of Chief Executive and Deputy Chief Executive” and “deflection tactics” by the DUP.
Cllr Gaston said that people have been asking why the council does not want to make a public comment about these matters.
However, Mid and East Antrim Mayor Councillor William McCaughey said these issues cannot be discussed in an open forum.
“To suspend standing orders would not permit us to speak on these issues in an open forum. I have a statement that under staffing issues, will be read out to deal with these issues.
“I am prepared to go to closed council to discuss this issue as our first agenda item.”
Larne Lough Alliance Councillor Danny Donnelly said: “Given the seriousness of the issues listed by Cllr Gaston, I am happy to second his proposal that we suspend standing orders so we can have a discussion about these issues in the chamber tonight.”
The Mayor stated: “I reiterate, given legal advice we cannot step outside, we are not in a position to discuss these issues in open council. The suspension of standing orders will not change the situation because the statement will only be read in closed council, as has been advised.”
Cllr Gaston insisted: “Surely there is some detail you can make yourself here tonight.
“The council appears to be in turmoil and we need to do something about it.”
He stated that “openness, transparency and clarity” is needed in order to move forward.
The Mayor said: “I am not responsible for whatever information makes it out and into the Press. I am responsible to ensure this corporate body is not put at any risk through our deliberations.
“The legal advice will not permit this item to be discussed in open council.”
Larne Lough Ulster Unionist Councillor Keith Turner commented: “I have sympathy with Cllr Gaston. However as Chair of Audit and Scrutiny, I am mindful if we do proceed with this proposal, we may jeopardise any future due process and to that end, I would urge caution.”
He suggested seeking the advice of the council’s solicitor who was online.
Knockagh Alliance councillor Alderman Noel Williams said that members have a legal requirement to “ensure council is run in an open and transparent manner”.
“The wellbeing of our staff is paramount. If there are shortfalls, elected representatives in this chamber, we need to address them.”
The solicitor told councillors that information relating to employment law should not be addressed “in an open forum” and should be dealt with under “closed business”.
She explained that the council would be “open to challenge over statements made in a public forum”.
Carrickfergus DUP councillor Alderman Billy Ashe commented: “I am a bit perplexed about what we are talking about here. I have absolutely no idea what is going on. One thing I am abundantly certain of is I will not be taking part in a debate against legal advice. Anyone fooled into going down that line needs to be aware of the gravity of the issue.”
The Mayor continued: “Staffing matters will be dealt with by members of council’s senior management team. They are not an issue for councillors per se. We have been given legal advice. I will not be straying from this legal advice because it puts this organisation at risk.”
Cllr Gaston insisted: “I think that is a nonsense response. NIPSA have issued a survey to all elected members. It is in public. It is in the Press. but yet you shy away from making a comment on that.”
Coast Road Sinn Fein Councillor James McKeown remarked that he sympathised with Cllr Gaston and the Mayor, whom he said was “in a very sticky position”.
He added: “This whole scenario needs to be discussed openly and very transparently. I, like many other councillors, have been asked what is going at council.
“I struggle to explain fully to anybody what is going on with this council. I think we as elected members need to be given a full breakdown about what is happening.
“I would be happy to wait but I would like a far more detailed account than just a statement being read.”
The solicitor also told the meeting that elected members will “only be given information in line with policy and procedure relevant to the item on discussion” and if provided with information will only be “within that remit”.
Councillors then voted against going into closed council immediately. Staffing was listed on the agenda to be discussed behind closed doors.
In a statement issued after the meeting, a council spokesperson said: “Council does not comment on staffing matters and no inference should be drawn from this.
“Council is taking the concerns raised by NIPSA extremely seriously. This Council takes a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment in the workplace, and a wide range of procedures are already in place for such concerns to be voiced, investigated and for those who raise them to be fully supported by the organisation.
“Council’s HR team is to meet with union representatives to discuss these matters. One incident of alleged bullying and harassment is one too many at Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. Appropriate processes are in place to ensure staff who raise such matters are fully supported.”