Cheshire East Council has received a "multiplicity of complaints" regarding the conduct and behaviour of Handforth Parish Council, which was in the spotlight last week when a recording of a chaotic Planning and Environment Committee went viral.
Problems at the parish council appear to have been ongoing for some time, however. In an official, but undated, notice to the parish councillors published on Handforth Parish Council's website, the Director of Governance at Cheshire East, David Brown, said that as monitoring officer he had received complaints ranging from multiple complaints about councillors’ behaviour; to fundamental issues of governance and member/officer engagement.
"The most recent referrals relate to suggestions that some members of Handforth Parish Council have purported to take decisions that are plainly unlawful, and these decisions have resulted in expenditure of public funds,” he wrote.
Mr Brown said that if the Code of Conduct matters raised were taken at face value they were sufficiently serious to warrant detailed consideration. “The detailed consideration may result in a hearing before the Cheshire East Council Committee for Standards.”
He went on to warn the councillors "that any member who knowingly acts unlawfully places themselves at risk of personal liability for damages to third parties, and the recovery of any public money purported to be expended by them on behalf of the parish council".
"It may be timely, given the nature of the referrals made, for Councillors to reassure themselves that no element of misfeasance in public office could arise. The elements of the offence are summarised in Attorney General's Reference No 3 of 2003  EWCA Crim 868 and expanded upon in the Crown Prosecution Service website."
Referring to the attempts that some councillors had made to reinstate a councillor after they had been disqualified following absence from meetings, Mr Brown said: "Councillors are all aware that there has been no valid challenge, upheld by a court to the declaration of vacancy as notified to the Returning Officer. It is therefore probable that any Councillor acting on the purported belief there is no vacancy may be engaging in misconduct and acting willfully or being recklessly indifferent to that fact."
Brown finished the notice by saying: “Handforth Parish Council, or any individual councillor, may seek advice and assistance from the local association of Town and Parish Councils for help with any potential issue and to seek advice to resolve the difficulties that have been reported. Given the high volume of complaints received, significant scrutiny of the parish council’s actions is likely.”
In a recent council meeting, Cllr John Smith of Handforth Parish Council said that relationships between the parish clerk, Ashley Comiskey Dawson, and the chair had broken down when a disagreement on reinstating the disqualified councillor arose.
He said: "A councillor missed meetings from December 2019. On taking advice from Cheshire East, they advised Ashley that a vacancy now existed in the West Ward due to self-disqualification rules. Councillors Birkhill, Tolver and Brewerton wanted Ashley to reinstate that councillor. However, Cheshire East Democratic Services instructed Ashley that it would be unlawful if he tried to do that.
"We had a meeting on Monday evening where it listed the Employment Committee meetings and Councillor Birkhill stated in there [...] that, due to the seriousness of the concerns about the actions of the clerk and the fact that relationships had broken down, they suspended him and that was in November."
According to Cllr Smith, the parish clerk, Mr Comiskey Dawson, later received an email in error "saying 'how can we get rid of Ashley. Can we get a solicitor who specialises in employment law to get rid of Ashley’ so that they could bring this councillor back".
Two later meetings that took place on 10 December 2020 led to an argument between the members which was viewed more than 5 million times on YouTube and led to nationwide attention from the media.
The 10 December meeting was called by two councillors using Schedule 12 of the Local Government Act 1972 which allows for an 'extraordinary meeting' to take place if the Chairman refuses to call a meeting after a requisition for that purpose, signed by two members of the parish council, has been presented to him.
Brian Tolver, Chairman of the council, joined the meeting and attempted to move a proposal to the council to deem the meeting unlawful.
He said: "There are some very specific conditions for calling an extraordinary meeting and these have not been met. These are specified both in our standing orders (standing order 17d) and in law. An extraordinary meeting has to be either called by the Chairman, or it has to be requisitioned formally by two councillors applying to the Chairman for it. I have received no such requisition".
But he was subsequently removed from the meeting by Jackie Weaver, a member of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils (ChALC), who was acting as clerk to the meeting in the absence of the regular clerk, after questioning her authority.
ChALC is a member-based organisation that exists to promote the rights and interests of town and parish councils in the Cheshire area. The organisation also provides professional support for members councils in all aspects of their work, including providing legal advice on council related issues.
Ms Weaver also removed to the waiting room two other councillors who opposed the calling of the meeting: Vice-chair Aled Brewerton, along with Cllr Barry Burkhill. Mr Brewerton had told Ms Weaver that he was in charge and told her to “read the standing orders! Read them and understand them!”
Ms Weaver then proposed the election of a new chair, and Cllr John Smith was elected chair.
A Cheshire East Council spokesperson said: "All matters relating to complaints to the monitoring officer about a parish council or elected member, remain confidential until all processes have been followed. The outcome of any formal investigation is published on the council's website."
Ms Weaver told Local Government Lawyer that it should be borne in mind that the 10 December meeting was properly called by two councillors, one of which was not the chairman nor was it the vice chairman.
"Before the meeting started their behaviour was clearly disruptive with the sole purpose of preventing the meeting that had been called," she said. "They were removed from the meeting even before it began (as the chairman stated). The vice chairman was also removed from the zoom session for his disruptive and unreasonable behaviour.
"The meeting then went on to properly elect a chairman for the meeting and the meeting began."