February 28, 2021

Newyddion Cymru Ar-Lein : Wales News Online

Newyddion Lleol a Chenedlaethol Cymru – Local and National News for Wales

More details emerge about reasons why leader of Merthyr Tydfil Council was suspended

MORE details have emerged about the reasons why the leader of Merthyr Tydfil Council was suspended for seven months.

A full transcript of the tribunal hearing which took place in December last year has been published by the Adjudication Panel for Wales.

The panel suspended Councillor Kevin O’Neill for seven months after it found six breaches of the code of conduct.

The breaches, referred to the panel by the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, were related to his interests in a property called St David’s on Luther Lane, neighbouring his home, which was purchased by private organisation Inspire and Support with the intention of housing children from troubled backgrounds in a community setting and one breach was related to his conduct towards the former chief executive Gareth Chapman.

The first breach of the code

The first allegation from the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales concerned whether Cllr O’Neill had failed to declare orally the existence and nature of a personal interest in the business of the authority relating to a property at Luther Lane at an inter-agency meeting on August 15, 2018.

The Adjudication Panel for Wales said that one of the undisputed facts of the case was that Cllr O’Neill had a personal interest in the property and that he was present at two meetings to discuss the Luther Lane property on August 15, 2018, including a pre-meeting with council staff and then an inter-agency meeting.

The second breach of the code

The second was whether he had a prejudicial interest in relation to the business of the authority regarding the property at Luther Lane and was in breach of the code in not withdrawing from the room when the property was being considered at that inter-agency meeting.

The panel said that this was a “disputed fact” of the case as well as whether the monitoring officer advised the Cllr O’Neill in August 2018 that he had a very clear prejudicial interest in the matter of the property, St David’s, Luther Lane and that he should not front any type of focus or lobbying group or be involved with this.

But the panel decided that a member of the public with knowledge of the relevant facts would “reasonably regard the fact that the respondent and his family lived next door to this proposed home as a factor likely to prejudice the respondent’s judgement of the public interest.”

It accepted the account of the monitoring officer advised Cllr O’Neill that he had a prejudicial interest and should not be involved despite Cllr O’Neill not recalling the term “prejudicial interest” being used.

The third breach of the code

The third concerned whether he had a prejudicial interest in relation to the business of the authority regarding the property at Luther Lane and was in breach of the code in that he was seeking to influence a decision about that business and made oral representations at the inter-agency meeting.

The panel said that a “disputed fact” of the case was whether the monitoring officer advised Cllr O’Neill that he should not attend the meetings on August 15, 2018 and that when he made it clear that he was going to attend, the monitoring officer advised that upon that basis, he should not contribute to the discussion at the meeting and only be a facilitator.

On this, the panel accepted the account of the monitoring officer that her advice was that Cllr O’Neill should not be at the meeting(s) at all, but that once he made it clear that he felt that he should be there, the monitoring officer then advised that if he had to be there then he should not contribute and should be the facilitator only.

The advice was given verbally although not recorded by the monitoring officer but was given at some point before August 15.

The fourth breach of the code

The fourth was that his email to the director of social services on August 16, 2018, failed to include details of his personal interest in the business of the authority in relation to the property at Luther Lane, and that the email sought to influence a decision about that business and that he made written representations about that business in which he had a prejudicial interest, in breach of the code.

One of the “undisputed” facts of the case that the Adjudication Panel for Wales gives was that he did send an email on August 16, 2018, to the director of social services following up on issues of concern to him arising from the inter-agency meeting on August 15 at which the director had been present, and Cllr O’Neill did not include any declaration in that email of his personal or prejudicial interest in the matter of the Luther Lane property.

The fifth breach of the code

The fifth was in relation to whether his actions in speaking at the meeting of the August 15, 2018, and sending written correspondence to an officer in the form of an email to the director of social services on August 16 were seeking to influence a decision about the business of the property at Luther Lane in breach of the code, and whether such conduct, if proved, could reasonably be regarded as bringing his office or authority into disrepute, in breach of the code.

One of the “disputed facts” of the case according to the panel is whether “at the inter-agency meeting of August 15, 2018, Cllr O’Neill was an active participant and his role went beyond that of merely a facilitator and whether he makes comments at the inter-agency meeting that were capable of influencing others present and any decision associated with it.

On this, the panel concluded that although Cllr O’Neill mentioned that he was compromised, this was not until some way into the meeting when he had already made contributions, and he did not say this at the outset.

The panel said he opened the meeting and sought an explanation of how the property had been purchased, he contributed information, complained at the lack of political oversight and discussed the outcry on social media as well as the approach of the leadership group.

He also did not make any comments that were supportive of the proposal and so his comments were not balanced as one would expect a facilitator’s to be, the panel said.

The panel also agreed with the ombudsman’s observations that as leader of the council who lived next door to the property, the comments were capable of influencing others and any decision associated with it.

The sixth breach of the code

And finally the sixth was whether the Cllr O’Neill’s conduct towards the former chief executive of the council at the meeting on 5 March 2019 was inappropriate and failed to show respect and consideration to him, in breach of the code.

The transcript said that the panel had established as an “undisputed fact” that the relationship between Cllr O’Neill and the former chief executive Gareth Chapman was “strained and poor.”

Another “undisputed fact” the panel gives is that Cllr O’Neill did not give the former chief executive, the former deputy chief executive or the monitoring officer, any indication that he intended to raise the former chief executive’s performance at the meeting on March 5 and that when concerned about the performance of the former chief executive, he did not follow the code of conduct protocol in the manner in which he raised his concerns at the meeting.

But one of the “disputed facts” is whether the conduct towards the former chief executive at the March 5, 2019 meeting failed to show respect and consideration to the former chief executive.

The panel found that Cllr O’Neill’s conduct towards Mr Chapman at March 5, 2019, meeting “clearly failed to show respect and consideration to him.”

It said that no warning was given to Mr Chapman about the contents of the meeting and the way in which he was spoken to, upon the evidence of Mr Chapman, Mr Cooper and the monitoring officer was “inappropriate, hectoring
and uninterruptible, and went beyond assertiveness.”

Cllr O’Neill’s responses

In an interview in March 2020, Cllr O’Neill accepted that he had a personal interest in the property in Luther Lane but denied that he had a prejudicial interest.

In relation to the meeting with the former chief executive and his conduct and behaviour towards him, Cllr O’Neill considered that he had not breached the code.

Cllr O’Neill also wrote to the Adjudication Panel for Wales where he disputed that he had sought to influence a decision at the meeting on August 15, 2018, and he disputed that he had failed to show respect and consideration to the
former chief executive.

He said that he heeded the monitoring officer’s advice in relation to the meetings on August 15, 2018, and that he recognised the need to “stand back” but he did not recall any legal language regarding a “prejudicial
interest” being used.

In relation to the email he sent on August 16, 2018, to the director of social services, he said that she had been present at the two meetings the previous day and was well aware of his position as a resident.

He also stated that in relation to the thirteen occasions when he spoke at the meeting on August 15, 2018, that the majority of these occasions were minor or completely innocuous statements and questions and he disputed that he had breached the provisions of the code mentioned.

Councillor O’Neill also submitted an additional witness statement in which he said “It is only from this investigation process and specific mentoring since the events that I understand what the phrase ‘prejudicial interest’ means and when it is relevant.

“If I found myself in a similar situation in the future, then I would certainly replace the term ‘compromised’ with the more legal phrase ‘prejudicial interest’ and quote it at every appropriate opportunity should similar situations arise.”

Cllr O’Neill has previously said that he intends to appeal the decision.

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