Seaford councillor did not breach code of conduct in dispute

A standards panel has cleared a Seaford councillor of breaching Lewes District Council’s code of conduct during a dispute with a volunteer last year.

Friday, 19th March 2021, 4:56 pm

Lib Dem Stephen Gauntlett helped set up the Greenhavens Network, a network for community groups responsible for green spaces in Peacehaven, Newhaven and Seaford, and was appointed its chairman.

A dispute later broke out between the Seaford Central councillor and Karen Rigby-Faux, who had been involved in establishing Greenhavens as part of her work as community liaison officer for Idverde – a grounds maintenance contractor employed by LDC.

She later continued to volunteer her time when the council told her employer they no longer wanted it to dedicate professional time to the organisation.

A breakdown in their working relationship occurred in early 2020 and as a result of the dispute, which revolved around a lottery funding bid and the future of the organisation, Ms Rigby-Faux submitted a written complaint to the council alleging that Mr Gauntlett had failed to comply with the code of conduct for members.

She claimed that Mr Gauntlett used his position as chair of the council to improperly advantage himself and to disadvantage herself.

This was heard by a council standards panel this morning (Friday March 19).

The council engaged ch&i associates to investigate the complaint and present a report to the panel.

Alex Oram, from ch&i associates, explained that some of the complainant’s accusations fell outside the scope of considerations as Mr Gauntlett was not given a formal role by the council to involve himself in the lottery bid or on matters relating to Greenhavens.

Mr Gauntlett had criticised Ms Rigby-Faux’s conduct and, on several occasions, in early 2020 copied her employer into emails on disagreements surrounding the bid – even though she was once again working in a purely voluntary capacity.

Their independent report said: “We consider it more likely than not that Cllr Gauntlett was trying to use his position as chair of the council to improperly influence the ongoing dispute over the future of Greenhavens [and] their involvement in the lottery bid.

“In doing so, we are satisfied that he caused a disadvantage to Ms Rigby-Faux, both personally and professionally.”

After deliberating in private, the panel found that Mr Gauntlett had not failed to uphold the code of conduct for members.

Christine Robinson, chairing the panel, said:  “The panel considered the three emails that Cllr Gauntlett sent on 3 April 2020, 1 May 2020 and 30 May 2020.

“If any of those emails did confer a disadvantage on Ms Rigby-Faux the panel felt this had not been Cllr Gauntlett’s intention, rather the panel felt that Cllr Gauntlett had written to various parties in good faith in the wider public interest because he was seeking the best outcome for the lottery bid, which he felt was being disrupted by Ms Rigby-Faux.

“The panel noted Cllr Gauntlett had copied Ms Rigby-Faux’s employers into his emails on the 3 April 2020 and 1 May 2020. However on both instances Cllr Gauntlett included an explanation to why he had done that namely he wanted Ms Rigby-Faux’s employer to be aware of her actions whilst on furlough.

“In addition the panel felt it appropriate for Cllr Gauntlett to have raised this with her employers because of the council’s own contractual arrangements.

“Further, the panel could find no direct link between Cllr Gauntlett’s emails sent on those dates and Ms Rigby-Faux being made redundant.”

She added: “For these reasons the panel finds Cllr Gauntlett had not breached paragraph 6A of the code of conduct.

“Incidental to the above finding, the panel wishes to recognise the difficulty for councillors when balancing several public roles and communicating clearly in what role they are operating in at any given time. This is especially true where a councillor is writing to multiple parties both within and outside of the council.”

Giving evidence to the panel Ms Rigby-Faux said the matter had ‘serious consequences’ for her mental health, career and family life.

She explained how her relationship with Mr Gauntlett had taken a ‘downward spiral’ at a time when he had become more unapproachable and less involved with Greenhavens.

She claimed he refused to hold an AGM citing ‘feeble excuses’.

During this time she had been furloughed by her employer but continued to work with Greenhavens in her own time.

Ms Rigby-Faux said there were concerns the lottery bid was being ‘hijacked’, adding: “It was clear he was trying to get me removed as CLO and in turn remove me from any dealings with the lottery bid.”

She said no evidence had been presented of any ‘unpleasant behaviour’ or ‘bad attitude’ on her part.

She went on to suggest Idverde had been encouraged by the council to make her redundant, which they did, after which she took her employer to tribunal for unfair dismissal, leading to an out of court settlement.

Although this had ‘gone some way to repairing the effect it had’, she spoke about the’ wounds’ and damage to her mental health and career.

She added: “His actions have not only brought him and the council into disrepute and lost me the job I loved, they have caused me severe mental distress and anguish.”

The panel also heard from Mr Gauntlett himself. He said: “I find it strange and rather sad and disappointing that we are here today. It did not have to be like this.”

He explained how the intention of the Greenhavens Network was to be a ‘loose federation not an entity’ and while acknowledging the hard work Ms Rigby-Faux had put in, he said: “As time went by Greenhavens seemed to assume more proportions and dimensions in her mind which were much more corporate than the original deliberately rather informal purpose.”

He raised the resignations of two Greenhavens committee members in 2019 and another two in 2020 during which time as LDC chair he was able to devote less time to the network.

Mr Gauntlett explained that some of the emails presented as evidence were from April and May 2020 when he was heavily involved in the emergency response to the Covid pandemic’s first wave in Seaford.

The first week of April was particularly ‘frenetic’ as he helped to coordinate deliver supplies to vulnerable people isolating in their homes meaning he ‘could not afford more than the minimum amount of time on anything’.

That same week was the deadline for submissions to the lottery bid and he was trying to ‘prevent it from capsizing’.

He had only copied in the direct decision makers, but admitted his mind had not adjusted to Ms Rigby-Faux merely being a volunteer rather than an employee of Idverde.

He claimed what he wrote on this occasion was in good faith and for the benefit of the wider community.