COUNCIL PRAISE FOR BULLYING ROW OFFICER- FLINTSHIRE STANDARD 8-7-10.

Labour Leader Aaron Shotton’s praise for  former Director Susan Lewis in the local freebie surprised me.  He wrote, “My personal thanks & gratitude go to Susan Lewis.  I found  Susan to be an excellent officer & an excellent servant to the people of Flintshire”. Is this the same Cllr Shotton who, month after month, aided by another Labour cllr, strenuously challenged Mrs Lewis at every Community and Housing meeting.  Is this the same cllr who, again aided by others refused to accept one of her reports on a housing accommodation matter because she had failed to consult with members. Does he not recall how I begged these members to accept  the report but my pleas fell on deaf ears. Things became so hostile as patience was now becoming lost at every meeting with the Director that last July/August; the Chief Executive quietly sent for by an officer when the attack was so ill tempered, he announced he found the atmosphere “toxic”. I warned Aaron recently that I felt a blog coming on over his amazing support for Mrs L. “I only spoke of her social services role which was fine when I was Leader”, he countered.  “Housing was her  problem”. On this we agreed as the officer struggled with her Housing portfolio and she should never have been given it.  Now that the facts are known, it seems that very little duty of care was given to her even though she gave the warning in February 09. Documents in my possession show that Mrs Lewis wanted to quit her job on 19th February 09.  On this date,a Housing Selection Panel had approved the appointment of a young, talented  young man called Malik.  After three visits to his potential new Authority, he withdrew mysteriously at the last minute last July.  Frustratingly, we had to start the process all over again. Knowing nothing of the Director’s state of mind,  I submitted a report after the Audit performance to our Monitoring Officer on 26th January, explaining my concerns that little progress was being made in this important Housing area &  lessons were just not being learned. My report was ignored. Something quite deplorable then occurred.  The law firm,  Eversheds were instructed  by the Authority to protect the Council  from a claim of constructive dismissal.  My report suddenly  became  the instrument to ease the way for Mrs Lewis’s financial settlement.      I became the mechanism to ensure a large financial settlement was approved rather than the Council having to defend her constructive dismissal claim.   Why had the officer been constructively dismissed?  I became the culprit!.   As a councillor, I was part of the “Corporate Employer” of all Flintshire staff and to bully an employee would naturally be serious and a large settlement could be demanded for the insult. So, someone in the Executive it would appear (as the CE confirmed it was not an officer) , had devised an evil scheme to discredit  me with the bullying smear and  neatly smooth the way for the release of Mrs Lewis with the financial settlement she sought. Only the CE had given her “special leave of absence”.  Sick notes were never submitted. On 23rd  February , Eversheds, the Council’s lawyers produced for the princely sum of allegedly £23K, a secret and individually numbered report for the Executive to read the recommendations on how Mrs Lewis could leave the Authority’s employment.  All  copies were collected  back again. One Executive member was abroad and those in the know could be counted on the fingers of one hand – or so it is alleged! On 24th February, a reporter from BBC Wales rang to ask if it was true that I was being paid off for bullying Mrs Lewis!!  The sum I was to receive was either  £750K without a pension & £400K with!)  This was sheer nonsense as cllrs are not employed.  A male had rung anonymously that morning, reported this, and said he was employed by FCC.  The following day, I was contacted by the Flintshire Leader with a similar story. Neither  report was used as the caller would not give his name.  I foolishly assumed that the leaker wanted to head off the pending huge pay off & decided to get the facts circulated to get it into the press.  I assumed linking my name as a minor “name”, would ensure the story would run! I  was totally wrong.  The truth was that a  sinister plot had been hatched to discredit me as a bully which would ensure  members accept releasing the officer under Eversheds terms rather than face the cost of defending an industrial tribunal that would have affected one of its own ranks.  This spiteful wheeze also had the advantage of moving the spotlight away from  the real villains in this unhappy saga.  Probably only one person knew that the officer was under extraordinary pressure and not coping well with the extra housing burden but the problem was not addressed!  The ‘bullying’ plan was a stroke of genius! I have serious and determined enemies within the Council. On 3rd March 2010, the story was reported in the Western Mail. Headline damning: “Cllr criticism of official may cost £800K”.  My blog was mentioned & its seriousness increased by a quote from a  senior council source who ” condemned the blog as extraordinary from an elected member”. This seemed a deliberate ploy by Flintshire’s Press Office to talk up the seriousness of my behaviour towards Mrs Lewis and furthermore, the pay off had now gone up to £800K  The anonymous tipster had only mentioned the upper figure of £750K so the chance of massaging the facts to my detriment still further had not been missed. Who was behind this pernicious smear?     I had written the blog, posted 16th Feb.  as the Director had simply vanished and no one was saying why she was absent. My job is to ask the questions and scrutinise expenditure.  That is why you voted for me. Under  threat of legal action from Eversheds, that  I was soon to meet head to head; the blog  was  taken down to be safe.  Its contents were true and I did not think I had done anything wrong. I suspected  that the unfortunate Audit  meeting was the final tipping point but there was a history to the Lewis saga that was not then known to me.  Reel back a year;  In  March 09, the Director had firmed up her request for release from the Authority.  This request was not actioned!  I know why of course, I know the whole story, but  I’m effectively muzzled.  As an elected member, any wrong word can set up yet another expensive trip to another Adjudication Panel.  I’ve found out the hard way, we are easy meat for authoritarian officials. Officers have no such restraints & yet as cllrs we employ them. Having been wrongfully smeared as a bully in the press, I asked the CE to find out who leaked this destructive news to the media.  Despite so few reading the Eversheds report in late February and thus the leaker came from a select inner  band, the culprit remained unmasked. Barry Davies, the Monitoring Officer  rang me on 21st May and told me that although this invitation would displease some,  he thought it fair in the light of all that had been going on with the Ombudsman, that I should read the Eversheds opinion too! So I did  on 24th May 2010, the day before the full Council met to determine the outcome of a Panel set up to look at the facts.),  I read  the Eversheds papers in which  Mrs Lewis had accused me of harassment, bullying, libel and malice.  These grave allegations against me had been accepted by Eversheds because Mrs Lewis had said so and they were also based on my 26th January  report on the officer’s  poor performance.  Mrs Lewis’ allegations against me were in a  letter dated 3rd February 2010. No one had spoken to me and yet  Eversheds recommended that I should be reported to the Ombudsman under breach of another code of conduct. The Monitoring Officer knew I had few friends!  It  would have been unfair to me if all other members read the Eversheds opinion of me and the allegations  but I was to be out of the loop and  to be kept in the dark.  Why should I be kept out of the loop?  Simple!  An important decision was required to grant Mrs Lewis a financial  settlement. The less I knew, the less I would be able to complain & shout my innocence. The full council did indeed  meet on 25th May 2010 but now I had told my group what was going on. They agreed to support me. They were upset nobody was telling my side of the story. The mood of members was edgy.  They knew something was afoot.  Press were excluded & the expensive Eversheds lawyers spoke for almost an hour.  He strongly advised settlement or disaster might strike.  A panel of members had been set up to make recommendations about Mrs Lewis employment termination.  It was discovered that the information available had been selective.  With the CE was always in attendance & chaired by a lawyer member, they were keen to settle. A vote was taken.  Cllr Heesom & I had been barred from voting by the Standards Committee.  My Group were solid.  Against settlement. No wavering!  Most of the Labour group abstained and several were for the settlement but the vote was lost. Much head to head discussions from the lawyer & CE.  This was not what  was wanted.  I had told my group no tribunal would be pressed. Events proved me right!   The settlement figure suggested by Eversheds was far short of £800K as the Lewis possible settlement mentioned in the Western Mail.  (This huge figure was floated to unnerve cllrs who would be more inclined to settle with Mrs L rather than risk that sort of pay off)  All  part of the cynical plan to demolish me? But who was the mastermind?.    Aaron was right to give Mrs Lewis some praise. Over the months, she was certainly pressed hard for results by the Labour team; but as a Director, members are entitled to results, information  and cooperation.  Giving her the Housing portfolio and make her soldier on despite her cry for help written in a letter dated 1st March 09, was in my opinion a regrettable error of judgement. It’s thought that the officer may still be working out time under Early Retirement Policy but if that’s what she’s entitled to, fine!  The threat of taking the Authority to a tribunal was always open to question and the crazy  6 figure pay-off  to the Press was  a clumsy spoof, Far from bullying her, I have done my best to raise my concerns to  those who were capable of protecting her.. Pity, no one seemed to be listening to me.

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