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Cardiff cabinet member cleared of bullying in row over missed waste collections

14 Jan 2022 8 minutes Read
Cardiff City Hall. Pictury by Nick Amoscato (CC BY 2.0)

Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter

A cabinet member on Cardiff council has been cleared of accusations of bullying in a row over missed waste collections.

Cllr Michael Michael, cabinet member for clean streets, recycling and environment, had been accused by Bablin Molik, a Liberal Democrat councillor representing Cyncoed, of bullying in his responses to her questions.

The cabinet member, who was responsible for changes made the waste collection service last year, in which refuse collectors in Cardiff switched to a four-day working week, denied the accusation and said politicians should “grow a thicker skin”.

Collection days changed for thousands of homes, which led to many many people complaining that their rubbish was not collected on the correct day. Some had to wait several days with bags of rubbish left uncollected on the street.

The role Cllr Michael involved answering many questions and complaints regarding the missed collections, from both members of the public and other councillors.

After the complaint by Cllr Molik failed to be resolved informally, the council’s standards and ethics sub-committee heard from both sides on Wednesday, January 12, to decide whether Cllr Michael had breached the code of conduct which councillors must follow.

In emails sent during April last year, Cllr Molik claimed Cllr Michael made personal attacks responding to her questions on missed waste collections. The emails from Cllr Michael included the following comments:

“Thank you for your comments. I forgot you are the CEO of a third sector charity and would have sorted it in hours.”

“You demonstrate a lack of understanding of the way council processes take place and decisions are taken.”

“Is that the new Lib Dem motto—open, honest and transparent—when are you going to start?”

‘Second complaint’ 

Her second complaint related to when she asked similar questions during a full council meeting in January last year, when she claimed that Cllr Michael “rudely implied she was unaware of a pandemic going on”.

She had asked: “Since Christmas and New Year, we knew there would be a backlog that needed to be cleared and we thought plans were put in place. There would be a shortfall in staffing, and plans should have been put in place. Since Christmas our recycling has been collected every Friday instead of Wednesday, or not collected at all.

“Many times I’ve raised this with officers, and either didn’t get a response or they said ‘it has been collected’. I went back to the residents and they said it hadn’t been collected. There’s been a lot of confusion, miscommunication, and miscollections going on. What went wrong?”

Responding to this, Cllr Michael said the service was struggling with staff absences, breaking down trucks, and a recent heavy storm. January last year saw Wales struggle with the second wave of the coronavirus and the stringent level four lockdown, as the vaccines just began to be rolled out.

He said: “Unfortunately we have a worldwide pandemic going on—I don’t know if you’re really aware of this. We have crews with limited numbers, trucks prone to breaking down, and we’ve had a storm. On any given day we don’t know who’s going to be there at work, because if one of the drivers or crew has to isolate, that means the rest of the team go with him.”

Her third complaint related to when she asked Cllr Michael questions about issues with seagulls, during a full council meeting in March 2018. However, complaints about councillors must be made within three months of the issue, so the panel disregarded this incident.

Cllr Molik had asked: “Mothers have contacted me regarding concerns with sitting in their back garden with their children; pets and postman have been attacked; and bin bags are torn open leading to mess on our streets. It isn’t just the accumulation of bird mess that raises concerns regarding increasing seagull population, but also that they attack people and pets.

“As we approach nesting time and with growing seagull population to reach 5,000 by 2020 in Cardiff, what is the council doing to ensure residents in areas like Cyncoed feel safe and unthreatened by seagulls?”

Responding to this, Cllr Michael said: “The increasing numbers of gulls nesting in urban environments is a nationwide phenomenon and not restricted to coastal cities like Cardiff. One of the best ways to prevent any nuisance caused by seagulls is for residents to ensure that they dispose of their food waste responsibly.

“But the one thing I cannot do is order gulls not to go to Cyncoed. As annoying as it seems, I really haven’t got that kind of power.”

‘Tone’ 

Cllr Molik told the hearings panel she felt the tone of his responses was “belittling and not acceptable”, particularly as she had relatives who died during the pandemic. She added his behaviour was “typical of the masculine culture” within the council.

She said: “I am an ethnic minority female councillor in Wales, a rarity in itself. I overcame many personal and societal barriers in reaching this place. And so Cllr Michael’s comment about me needing to have a thicker skin did bring a smile to my face, as he doesn’t have any idea what I’ve put up with all my life to get here.

“Cllr Michael and his behaviour is typical of the masculine culture that exists within Cardiff council, and it needs to be changed. I got involved in local government to support people and do good for the community I live in. The most frustrating part of my work is when I as a councillor have to repeatedly raise issues that get rebuffed or ignored.

“He has a tendency to do that every time he’s faced with a question. The questions I raised are based on concerns of residents. They have never been to pull any political stance. My intention has always been to get a clear and honest response back to the residents. This is something I’ve failed to get every time raising questions with Cllr Michael.

“He has a tendency to belittle the questioner, making one feel inept or inadequate. When he says ‘don’t you know there’s a pandemic going on’, I’ve lost family members during the pandemic, so I have a very clear understanding that there’s a pandemic going on and what the effect of that has been on people. For him to tell me that is belittling and not acceptable.”

Cllr Michael denied the accusations of bullying, and said politicians should have “a thicker skin”. He said Cllr Molik’s complaint was political, and every effort was made to communicate clearly with residents and councillors on changes to waste collection.

‘Different communities’ 

He told the panel: “I am a Greek Cypriot, and a BAME councillor. I have been the longest serving Greek Cypriot councillor in the UK, and regularly meet, represent and discuss with different communities. Recently I mentored a Nigerian lady from my ward who wants to get involved in public life. I have spent my entire working life working with ethnic minorities.

“So for anybody to accuse me what Cllr Molik seems to be doing, of picking on her because she’s BAME, is wide of the mark. It’s not only wide of the mark, it’s insulting. And I don’t like being insulted by someone who should have the basic understanding of my role in the community and what I’ve been involved in.

“Councillors not agreeing with councillors is not new, that’s normal. This is a political council. Whether anyone likes it or not, we are local politicians. The idea that Cllr Molik joined the Liberal Democrats not to be political is nonsensical. Disagreeing with a councillor doesn’t mean I have bullied a councillor.

“We’ve done everything possible to communicate with the political parties what we are attempting to do, to change to a better [waste collection] system. But Cllr Molik has decided that in her view, she wanted the thing to fail. She’s saying my leadership has failed, so why isn’t that a personal attack on my leadership then? Isn’t that an attack on us then?”

The hearings panel found the comments made did not breach the code of conduct for councillors, namely that they must show respect and consideration for others and not use bullying behaviour. Hollie Edwards-Davies, chair of the panel, said: “We came to the view that this was a political discussion.”

Although she added: “However, in the email correspondence, Cllr Molik asked specific and legitimate questions about operational and service delivery issues repeatedly, which were not clearly addressed. We would recommend that councillors make every effort to address genuine questions which are being asked on behalf of members of the public.”

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