Seaford councillor facing allegations he failed to uphold code of conduct

A hearing set to look into allegations the former chairman of Lewes District Council failed to uphold the councillors’ code of conduct has been postponed.

Thursday, 11th March 2021, 3:52 pm

The hearing had been due to take place on Wednesday (March 10), but was postponed due to illness. A new hearing date has not yet been set. 

It had been set to decide on allegations that, while chairman of the council, Liberal Democrat Stephen Gauntlett attempted to use his position to influence a bitter internal dispute within an outside organisation, known as the Greenhavens Network. 

Cllr Gauntlett had been involved in establishing the organisation – intended to be a network for community groups responsible for green spaces in Peacehaven, Newhaven and Seaford – and was appointed as its chairman when it formed its committee in 2018. 

Lewes District Council Southover House SUS-190904-113441001

According to an independent investigation, the dispute began after the breakdown in the relationship between Cllr Gauntlett and Greenhavens committee secretary Karen Rigby-Faux.

In her standards complaint, Ms Rigby-Faux alleged that Cllr Gauntlett had both “orchestrated a malicious campaign against her” as a result of their dispute and failed to properly manage his dual interests during a joint National Lottery bid with the South Downs National Park Authority.

Ms Rigby-Faux had been involved in establishing the Greenhavens Network in 2018 as part of her work as community liaison officer for Idverde – a grounds maintenance contractor employed by Lewes District Council.

After the organisation was established, the council told Idverde they no longer wanted it to dedicate professional time to the organisation, but Ms Rigby-Faux continued to work with the group (and sit on its committee) in a private, voluntary capacity.

Stephen Gauntlett

In late 2019, Ms Rigby-Faux was given permission (at the request of Lewes cabinet member for open spaces Julie Carr) to work with the organisation on its lottery bid in her professional capacity once again.

But by February 2020, she had begun raising concerns about the involvement of Lewes District Council in the bid and came to believe that Greenhavens was not being seen as an equal partner. As a result she had raised the possibility of the group pulling out of the bid entirely.

According to investigators, Cllr Gauntlett had initially been supportive of Ms Rigby-Faux over these views and was also considering what would be best for Greenhavens. 

However, Ms Rigby-Faux’s position on the bid had clearly caused concerns at Lewes District Council. Investigators report that a SDNPA officer involved in the bid together with Cllr Carr and cabinet member for sustainability Matthew Bird had raised their own concerns at a meeting with a senior council officer.

This senior officer passed on their concerns to Andrew Frost, the manager responsible for overseeing Idverde’s contract.

In their report, the investigators wrote: “She told him that they had reported that Ms Rigby-Faux’s conduct was hampering the progress of the bid; that she was difficult to work with and that her communications with councillors and partners were being perceived as aggressive. She asked Mr Frost to raise the matter with Idverde.”

Following this incident, Ms Rigby-Faux told others that she was being ‘bullied’ by the council’ and was feeling under “enormous pressure”.

It was around this time that Cllr Gauntlett’s and Ms Rigby-Faux’s working relationship began to breakdown.

On February 27, Ms Rigby-Faux wrote to members of the Greenhavens Committee saying that the council’s increased involvement in the bid had highlighted Cllr Gauntlett’s dual position and expressed concern that he was now too conflicted to remain involved.

In response, Cllr Gauntlett contacted Cllr Carr and invited her to contact Ms Rigby-Faux’s employer to make them aware of concerns around her conduct. He also later agreed to directly hand them evidence of her making derogatory comments about the council in a voicemail she had left on his telephone, in which she described it as a “political cesspit”.

Over the following months, the working relationship between the pair deteriorated further as more disagreements arose around the lottery bid and the future of Greenhavens.

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

(Notably, Ms Rigby-Faux’s post was made redundant after the beginning of the independent standards investigation. The decision was as a result of Lewes District Council changing its contract specifications and officers denied that the dispute played any part.) 

An investigator said: “Based on the evidence we have seen, we are of the view that while Cllr Gauntlett clearly held the work Ms Rigby-Faux had done in setting up the Greenhavens Network in very high regard, he also (from late February 2020) held her personally responsible for recent resignations from the committee; the attempts to stop him being personally involved with the bid; and for perhaps even putting the Lottery bid at risk.

“In our view by sending the emails of 3 April and 1 May 2020, Cllr Gauntlett was attempting to do more than simply raise what he viewed as legitimate concerns; he was also seeking to put Ms Rigby-Faux under pressure to stop acting in a manner with which he disagreed.

“We are left wholly unconvinced by Cllr Gauntlett’s assertion that he only copied Idverde into the email because he was concerned that her actions might contravene the terms of her furlough. Ms Rigby-Faux’s involvement with Greenhavens was by this time clearly as a volunteer. 

“Even if it been a genuine concern about a council contractor acting improperly, it was wholly inappropriate for Cllr Gauntlett to copy in anyone other than those responsible for her employment / managing that contract.

“Rather, 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.”

In light of the above, investigators have recommended that Cllr Gauntlett be found to have failed to comply with the council’s code of conduct by seeking to influence an internal dispute within the Greenhavens Network. They did not, however, recommend that any other aspects of Ms Rigby-Faux’s complaint be upheld.

A final decision on whether or not Cllr Gauntlett was in breach of the code of conduct will be made by the standards panel when a new hearing is set.

Huw Oxburgh , Local Democracy Reporting Service