Thursday 24 November 2011

Part Three: Night of the Long Knives - the hearing

Councillor Andreas Tambourides

Committee Room 3 is right at the end of the corridor of power in Hendon Town Hall, the least used of the Barnet council committe rooms, a fusty old room with a disused fire place, a faded carpet and nineteen thirties lighting, a suitable venue for the hearing of a complaint taken by one Barnet Conservative councillor against another.

Today's hearing, thought Mrs Angry, as she sat idly musing throughout the six hour epic meeting, was really a trial of old style values, the idea of public service for its own sake, and integrity in the democratic processes of local government, versus the mutant brand of brutal, self serving conservatism that we have here in Broken Barnet.

Today's hearing saw the presentation of the report of the investigation into the complaint brought by Tory councillor Kate Salinger against her colleague, Andreas Tambourides, the background to which is dealt with in the previous two blogposts.

Present at the hearing were Tambourides and his solicitor, Mr Hocking, three members of the Standards committee, two independent members and a councillor, legal and governance officers and the Director of Corporate Governance who was present as Monitoring Officer, but also had to substitute for the absent investigating officer. His was a difficult role, in fact and Mrs Angry has to admit, through gritted teeth, that he undertook this part with great skill and navigated the course of the process to the rightful conclusion.

Also present were a couple of bloggers, a union representative, a couple of members of the public - and a reporter from a local paper. Also in attendance were Councillor Barry Evangeli, to support Andreas Tambourides, (and who, ha, Mrs Angry caught shamelessly helping himself to biscuits at the adjournment) Councillor Joanna Tambourides, and oh look, at the back, Councillor Alison Cornelius, wife of Tory leader Richard Cornelius.

At the beginning of the meeting, it was announced that a decision had been made that filming and any similar method of reporting of the meeting would not be allowed. (If you nip across to the Barnet Bugle blog, you can see what happened when this decision was announced ... ) Anyway: Mrs Angry can't really tweet and write at the same time, so this was no great problem, for her. It would seem others present carried on regardless, and indeed why not, as the vote taken in full council not so long ago supporting the filming of meetings had not been qualified in any way.

The acting sub-committee chair, Ron Rosenhead, accompanied by Stephen Ross and Labour councillor Claire Farrier, reminded everyone that this was not a court of law. Jeff Lustig, Director of Corporate Governance, said that he did not see the hearing as a 'confrontational process'.

Introductions were made around the table. Andreas Tambourides, the subject of the complaint, introduced himself and reminded everyone that he was a member of the very same standards sub-committee which was hearing the complaint against him. Mrs Angry tried not to laugh.

Mrs Angry, in fact, spends most of the time in the council meetings she attends trying not to laugh, and trying to keep a straight face. This is impossible. Throughout Mrs Angry's childhood and school days, she was always in trouble for making faces and being perceived as undermining the solemnity of any given situation: Sunday lunch, holy mass, school assemblies, funerals, that sort of thing, and now, in her unrespectable blogging middle age, this regrettable tendency has resurfaced.

Several times during this hearing, in fact, a certain legal officer turned round to look disapprovingly at Mrs Angry, just for sniggering very quietly in her seat, and Mrs Angry would like to point out to the same officer that it is very rude to slip your shoes off under the table in the middle of a serious council meeting and twiddle your bare toes as if you were at the seaside.

Anyway. Where were we?

Let's reduce all the arguments and processes - six hours of them - down to the essential points.

The investigation found that Tambourides has breached the code in not showing respect, and in misusing council resources. Lustig explained why his actions would be seen as those of someone who was a member of a political group, and that it was a 'highly persuasive' argument that he was acting 'on council business'. The timing and context of the the email in question was important in terms of the political significance of the motive and effect of the article that was forwarded to all Conservative councillors in respect of the subject ie Councillor Salinger.

Councillor Kate Salinger was called to the table to assist the panel.

She explained what had happened on the night of the council meeting where her colleagues voted for the now notorious allowance rise. Before the meeting, she had stated that she could not support the vote, as a matter of conscience. In a time of hardship, when so many employees were expected to lose out financially, it was sending the wrong message. Barnet Council workers had been told that their pay wages would be frozen, or capped.

Kate Salinger was told that if she took this position, she would have to suffer the consequences.

She told the panel that she thought - and prayed - very hard about the matter and decided that she had to vote with her conscience.

At the meeting, she was removed from every position which she held, except in one or two cases where this was technically impossible. She listed each one, and it was clear that this ritual punishment had hurt her very much. She had interpreted the rules governing voting as allowing members to vote or abstain on a matter of conscience, which had a greater influence,in any case, than a group ruling.

Lustig asked her about her feelings at the time of the email sent by Tambourides. At first, she replied, she had found it almost laughable. As the day progressed, however, she had had a vast number of phone calls, emails and even letters put through the door in regard to the issue, and been featured on both the BBC and ITV news. The two paragraphs in the emailed article relating to her, and the allegations they made, especially regarding the borough solicitor, were simply not true, and she felt 'livid' at the false assertions that had been made.

Interestingly, Councillor Salinger also told the meeting that she had received many calls and emails from other Conservative councillors who claimed they now wished that they had acted as she had. Safely after the event, of course. This was one of the occasions which provoked exasperated mutterings from Mrs Angry, and another baleful look from a certain legal officer.

Kate Salinger said that she felt that the sending of the emailed article had impuned her integrity. 'I always try to be honest' she commented, ' and to behave with integrity and honour'.

When asked by Lustig why she felt she had not been treated with respect, she explained that respect involved treating people as you would like to be treated yourself. To impune her honour meant she was not being treated with respect.Andreas Tambourides had not checked the veracity of the article, and such behaviour was hardly what you would expct of someone from someone who was himself a member of this Standards Committee.

Four fellow councillors had spoken immediately to Kate Salinger about the article, and seven others had also done so later. It consequently transpired that Councillor Salinger's snivelling Tory colleagues had almost all been too scared of reprisals to agree to be identified when contacted by the investigator.

Stephen Hocking, the solicitor acting for Andreas Tambourides, has some questions. Did she ask Tambourides for an apology? She said that her lawyers, Carter Ruck,(blimey) had done so.

Hocking tried to suggest to Councillor Salinger, at some length, that the article in question was not really about her even though it included the following statement:

"Sources within the Conservatives in Barnet have also confirmed that Councillor Kate Salinger has been contacted by Barnet's borough lawyers over her conduct in a previous incident, unrelated to this incident ...' and claimed Kate Salinger was:

"Already a marginal figure and her actions have ostracised her entirely and she is now history."

Mmm. Kate Salinger listened patiently to what he said, reminded him, as clearly he needed reminding, of the two paragraphs in question, and wrily remarked that his line of questioning was 'very clever'. Not clever enough, as it transpired.

Tambourides' defence thoughout this hearing was that he was not acting in the capacity of councillor when he sent the email, therefore the code of conduct did not apply, and anyway he had done nothing wrong, and not used council resources to send the email, the veracity of which he had no reason to question.

Jeff Lustig carefully tiptoed through the minefield of legal arguments, and pieced together a case to disprove the arguments put forward on behalf of Tambourides. The lengthy addresses of Mr Hocking, and his attempts to quote legal precedent to support his client's defence were interrupted more than once by the committee chair, and it was clear that the committee were not going to be moved by wasted sympathy for Councillor Tambourides' plight.

Mr Hocking spent some time criticising the methods of the appointed investigator, in the course of which he constantly acknowledged, at some length, while continuing his criticisms, that he was not there to defend himself.

He thought that even if the action in sending the email had caused concern, this should have been a matter for party discipline, rather than dealt with as possible misconduct under the code of conduct and a matter for the Standards sub-committee. Tambourides had no intention of upsetting Kate Salinger when he sent the email. (Clearly he thought she would be thrilled to discover all her colleagues were being told she was history, ostracised, and a marginalised character, and to find that her character had been subjected to a baseless slur, a nasty lie about being contacted by borough solicitors over 'her conduct'). But no, it wasn't Andreas Tambourides' fault if he had not realised the article was inaccurate and hurtful, because, and I quote: ' we all assume what we read in the press is true' ...

Here we adjourned, the fact finding part of the hearing having finished.

After lunch, the next part of the process began with the panel announcing its findings of fact.

It was decided that it was more likely than not that Tambourides was acting as a member of the Conservative group and conducting the business of the council when he sent the email.

In response, Hocking said that his client's purpose and state of mind in sending the email was of significance. There was no past history of any disagreements or disputes between him and Kate Salinger (there was some muttering behind Mrs Angry at this point) and then he reminded us of the vital importance of the freedom of the press, and claimed his client had had no obligation to fact check the article before sending it. Really, thought Mrs Angry? Hocking droned on: even Tambourides was looking bored by now, and in danger of falling asleep. Oh God: another legal precedent was quoted.

Jeff Lustig now made some very important points. He reminded the panel that the members' code required a positive obligation to treat other councillors with respect. We must all ask ourselves how we would feel if a colleague were to forward a news article to all other colleagues with unfavourable comments included. Would this demonstrate the fulfillment of the obligation to show respect? He then queried the statement that there was no obligation to check accuracy in such a situation.

In the matter of using council resources, the key word was 'improperly': again there was a positive obligation for councillors to follow when using such facilities.

The committee now adjourned again to decide if there had been a breach of the code.

On the return from their deliberations it was decided that Councillor Tambourides was in breach of the code in relation to:

Paragraph 3(1)
You must treat others with respect

He was found not guilty of the other charge, failing to ensure that the resources of the authority are not used improperly for political purposes.

It was concluded that someone with Tambourides' experience should have been aware of the derogatory references within the email, their capacity to cause offence and the potential effects they would have.

His solicitor said that there would be appeal and asked therefore that any sanction should be suspended pending the outcome of any appeal.

Tambourides had not made up the allegations in the email. There was no history of 'bad blood'. He had no previous, guvnor.

The panel deliberated and their final finding was that, despite taking the submissions into account, they nevertheless had to recognise that Councillor Tambourides was a member of the Standards Committee itself, the implication of course being that he of all members really ought to have known better.

He was ordered to attend a course of appropriate training in the members code of conduct. He must also submit a written apology to Kate Salinger for the distress he had caused her. The sanctions would not be suspended.

There was no mention of whether Councillor Andreas Tambourides would continue, as he has throughout the time since the complaint was lodged, as a member of the Standards sub-committee.

Throughout the long course of the day, sitting in the committee room, Mrs Angry had the great pleasure of the company of Councillors Kate and Brian Salinger. They are a charming, honourable and decent couple, in fact, who are a credit to the values they espouse.

Kate Salinger was the only Tory who had the courage and integrity to refuse to support the abominable allowance rise vote last year. After doing so she was treated in the most vile fashion by each and every other member of her own party, who stood by and allowed her to be subjected to an immediate public humiliation, a ritual punishment, the vengeful stripping of all her council posts, positions I have no doubt that she undertook with commitment, honesty and dedication, unlike so many other of her lazy, greedy, feckless Conservative colleagues.

When this was done, and Kate Salinger left the chamber in tears, significantly, it was a female Labour councillor who came to her assistance, and offered her support. What does it say about the bullies, whimpering cowards and absolute bastards who constitute the rest of the Conservative group on Barnet Council, that they could stand by and let this happen? That they continued to lack the courage to support her openly even though some of them later privately expressed their horror at what had happened?

It says remember: this is Broken Barnet, and this is how things are. No doubt already the Salingers' phone is ringing with colleagues keen to congratulate Kate on her success today. I hope she tells them to f*ck off. She won't, because she is too nice, so let me tell them on her behalf. It really is my pleasure.


Mr Mustard said...

I am very sorry to have missed this meeting Mrs Angry ( I hope you don't leave me on the naughty step for too long ) but I had taken my full quota of time off work already this week ( NEC motorbike show you know and the Barnet Bloggers' Bus to order, yes really, delivery 1st March ) and I now know to pack a flask and sandwiches for the next standards committee.

I did have the pleasure of seeing Cllr Kate Salinger in the evening and she is a heroine not only for doing the right thing on allowance rises in the face of dreadful opposition but also for enduring an emotional day and then chairing a Residents Forum at 6pm and an Environment Committee at 8pm ( with Evangeli as her deputy! ).

If only all her colleagues worked so hard with the true interests of Barnet residents at heart ( if they have one ).

Mrs Angry said...

Mr Mustard, no one in their right mind would want to sit through this sort of event if they could possibly avoid it, although on balance I would rather do so than look at a load of motorcycles, or go to Birmingham (no offence, Brummies). Clearly I am not in my right mind. Someone help me, please.

Yes: Kate Salinger is an admirable woman: and to have to sit next to biscuit boy Councillor Barry Evangeli and opposite you at a residents forum after her day is indeed an act of heroism.

I am sure we all look forward to the next standards hearing, but I suspect that there will be a long queue for seatsat that one ...

baarnett said...

I know it's only a minor question, but what council posts did they fail to strip her of, and why?

Didn't they take at least one role away from her, and then had to backtrack, for legal reasons?

Did they go into that council meeting last year with a list of Councillor Salinger's roles, because they knew she might be "difficult", and then just publicly went down the list, or at least tried to?

Mrs Angry said...

There were two: one was membership of a committe which I believe had to be voted for, rather than appointed, and the other Cllr Salinger said yesterday that she thought they had just forgotten about.