Labour blasted by Tories after meeting 'shambles'
Conservative town councillors have rounded on their Labour counterparts in charge at the town hall, saying they are “appalled” at the way council meetings are being used to “pursue political objectives”.
Two serving Tories, Couns Gill Merry and Steve Kirkham, along with Coun Mike Benson, who represents Sandbach Town at Cheshire East, have written to the Chronicle this week following a town council meeting they described as “a shambles”, claiming the standard of behaviour “has fallen considerably in recent years, with an atmosphere that can only be described as toxic”, and that Coun Sam Corcoran, Labour representative for Sandbach Heath and East, “must bear the main responsibility for what is going on”.
But Coun Corcoran, also the leader of Cheshire East Council, has hit back, responding to the claims that he is seeking to “micromanage” the town council as “just another factually incorrect smear attempt”.
As to the claims matters were getting worse in recent years, he referred to when Coun Merry was part of the Conservative administration at Cheshire East that oversaw the “appalling” culture within the authority, where an independent Local Government Association report found that “some people are so scarred by what's happened to them or others that they remain afraid to put their head above the parapet” and that the reference to “robust management” within the report for some people “was a euphemism for poor behaviour and in some instances bullying”.
The Conservative representatives' letter claimed that during a town council meeting earlier this month the Labour-dominated council “seemed intent only in stage-managing public questions just to enable political point-scoring”.
They also said that it was a “matter of concern” that two Labour Cheshire East councillors - Couns Corcoran and Katherine Flavell, did “not bother” to declare an interest in spite of “the clear conflict of interest” in a number of agenda items.
“It is considered good practice to do so in the interests of openness and transparency,” the Conservatives' letter said.
They also claimed Labour representatives then “verbally attacked” another councillor, Independent David Jack, even though they knew there was already a code of conduct complaint pending in relation to comments he made on social media.
During the meeting, a highly charged debate then took place for several minutes when councillors had their say about whether the complaint by Hannah Cotton, a member of the public who was at the meeting, should be discussed as the complaint was being dealt with confidentially.
The Tory councillors' letter said: “It is no excuse to say that they were responding to criticisms. They should know better. It should have been stopped immediately.
“Instead, matters got out of hand, with a number of Labour councillors joining in the unseemly squabbling.”
Their criticism then moved on to the use of standing orders at council meetings referring to how Coun Corcoran questioned Labour Coun Paula Eaton directly by asking her “are you going to support my amendment or not?” in relation the efforts made to reopen Sandbach town centre after the lockdown.
“This is also not permitted by standing orders, as well he knows,” the letter said. “Couns must speak to the mayor, not other councillors. Standing orders are not optional extras. They are there to ensure the orderly and dignified conduct of business, not a free for all.”
The letter pointed out that both Couns Merry and Benson were former mayors of Sandbach.
It added: “All of us are appalled at the way Sandbach Town Council meetings are being used to pursue political objectives. The standard of behaviour has fallen considerably in recent years, with an atmosphere that can only be described as toxic.”
Saying that Coun Corcoran must bear the main responsibility, it added: “Why he should try to micromanage the town council beggars belief, but it has to stop and he should concentrate on his role on Cheshire East Council.
“Let us hope that common sense will prevail and that meetings of our elected representatives can return to a civilised and professional approach.”
In response, Coun Corcoran said Cheshire East's monitoring officer advised that he and Coun Kathryn Flavell did not need to disclose an interest, but Sandbach Labour Coun Laura Crane, who did declare an interest, as a precaution might choose not to take part in the debates.
Referring to the claim that Labour representatives “verbally attacked another councillor” “presumably”, Coun Corcoran said, “a reference to intervening to defend Hannah Cotton from a verbal attack by Coun David Jack, he questioned why the Conservatives failed to speak up in favour of a member of the public who came to speak at the council and was “shouted down” by David Jack and also questioned how they knew about this complaint, as the code of conduct process is supposed to be confidential.
Coun Corcoran said: “The fact that behaviour is subject to a confidential complaint should not stop other councillors from acting to address poor behaviour. Sadly, the Conservatives seem to have no objection to David Jack attacking others by making comments such as 'thick as pig shit', 'retard', 'liar', 'are you just thick or plain stupid as well?', and reward such disgusting behaviour by putting him forward as deputy mayor.”
Coun Corcoran also referred to Katie Unnithan, who has organised recent anti-racism protests in Sandbach and spoke at the same meeting. He said: “We think that it is great to see young people in Sandbach protesting peacefully on a matter that they feel strongly about. We welcome such peaceful, well-organised activity by young people in Sandbach; it is very sad that the Conservatives object to Labour councillors speaking up to support Katie. It is even more sad that they assume (wrongly) that any young person speaking out on social issues must have been stage-managed by Labour.
“Tackling bullying and racism should not be a party-political issue, but the Conservatives seem to want to make it into one.”
He added: “The Conservatives want a mayor of Sandbach who resorts to foul-mouthed abuse, shouts down members of the public, refuses to endorse the code of conduct and publicly burns monitoring officer rulings which find him having breached the code of conduct.”
As to the comment about questioning Coun Eaton, Coun Corcoran said the clerk had said she was finding it “really difficult” to take the vote using the remote meeting technology and Coun Eaton seemed unclear as to whether the vote was on the amendment or the substantive motion. Coun Corcoran clarified that the vote was on his amendment and Coun Eaton voted against Coun Corcoran's amendment.
“So far from it being what the Conservatives suggest of trying to influence a vote, in reality it was a helpful clarification which enabled the meeting to progress,” Coun Corcoran said.
After referring to Coun Merry's time at Cheshire East when the Conservatives were in charge, when Coun Corcoran mentioned references to poor behaviour and bullying in the Local Government Association report, he said: “Coun Merry was also a town councillor when Labour were in a minority and saw then the way Labour councillors were shouted down and prevented from speaking.
“The allegation that I am seeking to micromanage the town council is just another factually incorrect smear attempt. Having recently completed a two-year term as chair of personnel, I now hold no town council chair or vice-chair,” said Coun Corcoran.
He said when items were put forward at the meeting about the complaints process and social media policy it would have been an “ideal opportunity for the Conservatives to speak out, condemning poor behaviour and promoting positive behaviour in a non-party political way”. He added: “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to remain silent.”