Jez Hemming, local democracy reporter
A row that split a “toxic” council cost thousands of pounds, saw resignations and resulted in two councillors being barred from office.
The remarkable story of unrest within Conwy town council began almost four years ago amid rivalries, allegations of bullying and a row over who collected letters for ‘Santa’ from a local school.
It led to resignations, an Ombudsman’s inquiry, thousands of pounds spent on legal fees and husband and wife councillors, Terry James and ex-town mayor Pat Hart, facing a Standards Committee.
The allegations began with a dispute between Cllr Hart and a council employee.
The Standards Committee ruled Cllr Hart and Cllr James breached the code of conduct by not declaring an interest at seven separate meetings involving discussions about council staffing.
Some meetings they attended included discussions about the two employees – former town clerk Helen Barritt and events coordinator Paul Gillbanks – after they issued grievances against the two councillors. It was also found that they failed to leave the room when those meetings took place in 2018.
The Standards Committee hearing also ruled the couple had sought to influence a staff committee on June 14, 2018, which was discussing the outcome of a report into allegations Cllr Hart had bullied Mrs Barritt.
The committee took a “very serious view of the breaches” and noted both councillors “appeared to have a lack of insight” into their actions and the consequences.
It also said there was “a chaotic atmosphere within the town council where procedures may not have been correctly followed” during the time of the breaches but it was both councillors’ responsibility to adhere to the code of conduct.
They were each barred from office by the Standard’s Committee for one month, with the suspension ending on January 1 this year. It also ordered all Conwy town councillors to undergo “code of conduct” training.
The dispute began in May 2017, according Mrs Barritt, when a secret ballot elected new councillor Tracy Hughes as a council governor for Ysgol Awel y Mynydd, over Cllr James.
It was alleged Cllr Hart attempted to see who voted against her husband and, after being challenged by Mrs Barritt, allegedly said: “I’m the mayor. I can do what I want.”
Cllr Hart, an Local Education Authority (LEA) representative on the school’s board of governors, said: “There was some query as to whether that vote had been carried out correctly. I was the mayor at that time until the end of May, when Cllr Bill Chapman became mayor.
“At no time did I say ‘I’m the mayor, I can do what I want’. I most certainly have never said anything like that at all during my term of office – this is a complete fabrication.”
She also denied trying to find out who had voted in the ballot. Mrs Barritt claimed she was spoken to in a “bullying” way by Cllr Hart and the member was asked to apologise by then-mayor, the late Cllr Bill Chapman.
Letters to Santa
Mediation was arranged between the two women after Cllr Hart refused to apologise. Mrs Barritt said: “All I ever wanted was an apology for the way she had spoken to me. I wrote to Cllr Hart proposing the mediation. She agreed and I contacted the county council to set it up.”
However, the relationship broke down further and Mrs Barritt pursued a grievance against her instead.
Cllr Hart and Cllr Tracy Hughes clashed over collecting letters to Santa from Ysgol Awel y Mynydd in December 2017. It was customary for the council’s representative on the school’s board of governors to deal with them.
Cllr Hart said she would do it but was reminded it was Cllr Hughes’ responsibility. This, according to Mrs Barritt and former councillor Hughes, upset Cllr Hart and cemented the rift – a claim Cllr Hart also denies.
There were three, conflicting, internal reports conducted into allegations Cllr Hart “bullied” Mrs Barritt. One alone cost £6,000. Cllr Hart strongly denied the allegations and eventually the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales was called in.
He ruled: “I do not believe there is a case for Cllr Hart to answer and I have decided that this case does not merit further action in the public interest.”
Yet Mrs Barritt also complained Cllr Hart had breached the code of conduct. In addition Mr Gillbanks triggered an Ombudsman’s inquiry into Cllr James, claiming he had breached it too by not declaring prejudicial interests at staff committee meetings.
About Cllr Hart, the Ombudsman concluded: “Councillor Hart’s statements at interview cannot be reconciled with the other evidence available.”
With regard to Cllr James, he said: “…at interview he maintained that he had not, in his view, breached the code at any of these meetings.”
He then directed the matter to Conwy county council’s Standards Committee.
Cllr Tracy Hughes has left the council, citing the “toxic atmosphere”.
Mrs Barritt took up a part-time finance role with the body but has also now moved on.
Cllrs Hart and Cllr James continue to maintain they were the victims of a “hate campaign” against them and are back as councillors.
Current mayor, Cllr Emma Leighton-Jones, welcomes the recommendation of training for all members and hopes everyone can move on.
She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “We are just waiting for the training to be put together.
“Speaking as mayor and chair of the council I’m pleased the Standards Committee is taking an interest.
“I’m really happy they’re providing training and helping us move forward – I’m more than happy.”