AN independent investigation has ruled that a parish councillor “bullied and intimidated” members of his own council by making a number of “unsubstantiated claims” about them.
The investigation into the behaviour of Stratfield Mortimer councillor Christopher Lewis considered that he had breached the code of conduct last year.
Solicitor Liz Howlett, who conducted the investigation, concluded that Mr Lewis had “threatened” both the parish council’s clerk and chairman over “unjustified allegations” of criminal behaviour, failure to follow procedure and claims of financial mismanagement.
But in response to Ms Howlett’s report, Mr Lewis contested just about all of her findings – and still maintained that taxpayers’ money was not being spent correctly – despite council accounts for 2014/15 being signed off by an auditor.
According to the solicitor’s report, Mr Lewis was unhappy that the council’s clerk had granted one of the councillors permission to vote on whether to award West Berkshire Council a sum of money towards the Superfast Broadband project.
Mr Lewis said the councillor, who works for BT, should have declared an interest in the item and that the clerk, by allowing him to vote, had acted illegally.
However, the independent investigation questioned whether an interest would have to be declared as the money was going to West Berkshire Council rather than BT.
He also claimed the clerk’s sick pay and pension payments were not in line with financial regulations – something the council denies.
The investigation centred around two letters that Mr Lewis sent to the parish council’s chairman and clerk on July 10 and July 12 last year.
In the letters, Mr Lewis threatens to “go to the auditors” if the situation is not resolved to his satisfaction.
In the first letter to the chairman, Mr Lewis says: “Either both you and Julian can work together with me in a mature manner or alternatively I will raise controversial items and write critical letters to auditors.
“We have the summer break in front of us, the choice of yours.”
The investigators report said: “The tone and language used by Councillor Lewis is the issue here together with the persistent and relentless stream of communication which, in my opinion, does amount to bullying.”
It adds: “Councillor Lewis tends not to ascertain the facts before making allegations of criminal behaviour.
“Councillor Lewis needs to reflect and consider carefully the impact that the language and tone he uses actually has on people.
“People are upset by his tone and they do become worn down by his constant barrage of questions.”
West Berkshire Council’s Governance and Ethics Committee heard from all parties involved at a meeting on Monday, March 14.
The committee accepted the findings of the investigator that Mr Lewis was not motivated by bad faith, and that he believed he was acting in the public interest.
However, it did agree that he had breached the code of conduct.
A letter will be sent to Mr Lewis advising that he needs to reflect on the tone of his letters.