Hitchin councillor censured for breaching codes of conduct after three-day tribunal – as district council slammed for ‘culture of blame, fear and intimidation’

David Leal-Bennett

David Leal-Bennett - Credit: Archant

The final day of a standards committee hearing on the behaviour of a Hitchin councillor heard of a ‘blame culture of fear and intimidation’ at North Herts District Council – as five charges out of nine against him were upheld relating to him breaching council codes of conduct.

Disrepute and breaches of protocol against Hitchin Highbury ward councillor David Leal-Bennett were upheld at the end of today’s hearing of the district council’s standards sub-committee meeting – leading to the committee to issue him with a formal censure.

Pushing a pregnant woman was not cited as one of the reasons for the breaches of protocol being upheld.

In a statement, a committee spokesman said: “We find he is a very good councillor for Hitchin. His dedication to the electorate has really shone out over the last three days.

“We do not feel he actually needs training – we just hope he can take note of how other people relate to him.”

A charge of bringing the authority in disrepute was also upheld, including the charge of using his Twitter account to issue critical comments. As was a failure to show respect and consideration also upheld – including a charge of being badly behaved when contractors visited leaving one worker ‘disgusted’.

A charge of compliance with rules and polices was also upheld with his attitude being described as ‘most regrettable’.

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With regards to bullying or harassing behaviour – the charge was also upheld.

Mr Leal-Bennett was said to have showed a complete lack of respect, behaving in an unpleasant and rude manner.

Responding to the verdicts, he replied: “It’s a sad day for democracy when talking directly constitutes bullying.

“This isn’t about me anymore. This is fundamentally about an attack on democracy.

“This whole process has cost around £40,000.”

Nicholas Moss, an independent adjudicator at this afternoon’s meeting also gave his view, saying: “Out of the nine allegations, five were upheld, and four were not.

“Two are less serious, including the lack of co-operation which was mitigated by the councillor apologising. In addition the relation to protocol charge was already covered by code breaches.

“The disrespect, bullying and disrepute charges are serious matters, but I echo the committee’s assertion that Mr Leal-Bennett is a good councillor.”

Charges relating to breeches of impartiality, use of position, decision making, and vexatious and malicious behaviour were not upheld.

The three-day hearing was convened to investigative evidence over councillor Leal-Bennett’s alleged breaching of the councillor’s code of conduct, from complaints made in March last year relating to a council meeting about Hitchin Town Hall Ltd.

However, with the controversial town hall site still not open to the public and costing the council more than £28,000 every month it remains closed, the council held the contentious hearing over three days this week.

The complaints stem from Mr Leal-Bennett’s involvement as a trustee and director of Hitchin Town Hall Limited – HTH Ltd – and his behaviour as a councillor, including refusing to leave the council chamber during a meeting held last January in which officials said his presence in the debate was a conflict of interest.

Councillor David Leal-Bennett’s representative Charles Bunker told the committee and stunned members of the public in the chamber at the council’s offices in Gernon Road that there was culture of ‘bullying, fear and intimidation’.

Mr Bunker insisted Mr Leal-Bennett did not have a disclosable pecuniary interest in Hitchin Town Hall and that he did not have a case to answer regarding pushing a woman, Katie White, a legal and monitoring officer for the council, who was seven months pregnant at the time.

He also drew attention to the hearing being arranged only after a police investigation was dropped into councillor Leal-Bennett – saying that the council thought: ‘We haven’t ‘got’ him through the police so we’ll have to ‘get’ him internally’.”

Mr Leal-Bennett said he felt he was being chastised by the council because he had a ‘close association’ with representatives from the town hall due to his directorship – despite trying to save the council £1 million relating to the dispute.

“The council has lost more than £1m regarding the town hall. It has been blown away.

“I feel sad, not angry about this. I endeavoured to get the parties together in one last chance to negotiate and sort this out.”

He added: “In my view this council runs contrary to openness, honesty and leadership.

“My role as director of Hitchin Town Hall has always been different to my role as a councillor.

“There is a complete blame culture at North Herts District Council.

“However, I have no option but to accept the findings today – although I gather I can appeal.”

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