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Councillor suspended for sending ‘sexualised’ messages to vulnerable resident

29 Apr 2024 6 minute read
Flintshire councillor Bernie Attridge. Source: Local Democracy Reporting Service

Liam Randall Local Democracy Reporter

A former deputy council leader has been suspended from being a councillor for four months after sending sexualised messages to a vulnerable resident.

Bernie Attridge, the former deputy leader of Flintshire Council, was found to have breached the local authority’s code of conduct on seven occasions following an Adjudication Panel for Wales tribunal held on Friday (April 26, 2024).

The Connah’s Quay Central councillor was also sanctioned for acting in a bullying and disrespectful way towards officers and bringing his office into disrepute.

“Vulnerable adult”

A complaint was brought forward after the independent councillor was contacted in March 2021 by a woman who lives in Flintshire to seek help in finding a council house for her granddaughter.

The woman was receiving support from social services at the time after being identified as a vulnerable adult.

Messages were then exchanged between the complainant, named only in the panel’s report as “Ms M”, between July 2021 and May 2022 in which Cllr Attridge made a number of sexualised comments.

After contacting housing officers to seek assistance with her case, he was said to have become “rude and threatening” when they were unable to help and showed a similar attitude towards the authority’ monitoring officer.

Cllr Attridge apologised for his behaviour in correspondence with the panel, citing a traumatic childhood event, as well as mental and physical ill health as the main causes of his misconduct.

Panel members concluded that he should be suspended from sitting on Flintshire Council and Connah’s Quay Town Council, of which he is also a member, for a period of four months.

Report

In a report, the panel said: “On the basis of the findings of fact, the case tribunal found by a unanimous decision that there were failures to comply with the relevant authorities’ code of conduct.

“The tribunal had little difficulty in concluding that, through his interactions with Ms M, the Respondent had failed to show respect and consideration for her and was in breach of paragraph 4 (b) of the code of conduct.

“The tribunal was satisfied that the respondent’s interactions with Ms M could have brought his office or the authorities into disrepute.

“Once the respondent had offered to assist Ms M with her granddaughter’s housing issue, the nature of his messaging became more sexualised, and the messages strongly indicated that he was courting some sort of sexual relationship or favour in return.

“In interview, he accepted that he had ‘wanted a woman’ and the power imbalance demonstrated that he had therefore attempted to use his position as a councillor improperly in order to obtain an improper personal advantage.”

“Grassed up”

Cllr Attridge has been a member of Connah’s Quay Town Council for 30 years and was elected to the county council in 2004.

He previously served as Flintshire Council’s deputy leader, but was sacked by former leader Aaron Shotton in March 2019 over an alleged breach of confidence.

He later quit the Labour Party after being a member for more than three decades and went on to become leader of the authority’s independent group, until he recently stepped down.

Cllr Attridge’s exchanges with Ms M were revealed via her social worker in 2022 and led to a safeguarding meeting being held between the council and North Wales Police.

While police advised that the threshold for a criminal prosecution had not been met, Ms M later made a complaint to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales with the assistance of the council’s monitoring officer Gareth Owens.

After being informed of the allegations, Cllr Attridge claimed that Mr Owens “had it in for him” and had “grassed him up”.

He later made a formal complaint against Mr Owens, accusing him of trying to ruin his career, but withdrew it after being asked for evidence by the council’s chief executive.

The panel said his comments about the monitoring officer were “disrespectful” and therefore represented a breach of the code of conduct.

Cllr Attridge’s conduct towards housing officers occurred after he disclosed confidential information about another family’s housing situation to Ms M during the period in which they were messaging.

He reacted with frustration after the council’s housing service manager told him she could not respond to his query about the other family unless he was acting on their behalf.

The panel said: “The particular email of concern was the respondent’s of 27 April in which he complained that he had been treated like a ‘naughty schoolboy’ and suggested that the response to him might have been different if he was to have asked the question after the election.

“The recipient, Ms Griffiths, described the communication as ‘pointed’ and that it made her feel ‘threatened’ and ‘disrespected’ and that his response ‘was challenging my professionalism and that my integrity was being called into question’.

“The tribunal considered that the respondent had not shown respect and consideration for the officer, and he had therefore committed a breach of paragraph 4 (b) of the code of conduct.

“The email could also be properly defined as bullying or harassment; the respondent accepted in interview that it contained a ‘veiled threat’, particularly with reference to the elections.”

Other alleged code of conduct breaches by Cllr Attridge, including that he failed to declare a personal interest in Ms M’s case, were found not to be proven.

“Sorry”

Cllr Attridge said in mitigation that he had recently spent time in hospital for abdominal surgery and was permanently disabled.

He added that he was also receiving psychological therapy in respect of events which occurred during his childhood.

He said his breaches of the code were as a direct result of a nervous breakdown, which he described as “the lowest point in my life”.

In an email to the panel, he said: “I am sorry to everyone who I have put through this process, but I am confident the therapy and professional help I’ve received will help me with my childhood trauma and give me strength when able to help others and encourage them to speak out earlier than I did.

“Being a county councillor has been my full-time job for nearly 16 years as I’ve held many senior positions at FCC.

“I am so worried that this could lead to disqualification, of which I am begging the panel not to consider, as the council is my life (and) I wake up every day wanting to make a difference to people’s lives.”

Cllr Attridge’s suspension comes into place with immediate effect and a notice has been placed on the council’s website to inform residents.

However, the panel said he could seek permission to appeal the decision via the High Court if he wanted to.

Cllr Attridge has been contacted for comment.


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