Councillors' fears over ‘trial by social media’

Councillors have called for support from their authority if they receive complaints about their conduct amid fears they could face “trial by social media”.

Concerns were raised about the impact of complaints on members at Staffordshire County Council
Concerns were raised about the impact of complaints on members at Staffordshire County Council

Members of Staffordshire County Council spoke of being subject to “vexatious complaints” after an annual report on grievances was presented.

They also raised concerns about the impact of complaints on members, who may find themselves vilified online.

Social media posts and comments considered “abusive”, “slanderous”, “hostile” or “inappropriate” led to five complaints being made against councillors during 2019.

The report presented to Monday’s Audit and Standards Committee also revealed other complaints made related to abusive behaviour, “dismissive” comments during a committee discussion, comments considered “disrespectful” and failing to respond to correspondence and failing to maintain confidentiality of a complainant’s information.

In total, 13 complaints were made against elected members between January 2019 and September 2020.

In the abusive behaviour case, the member involved was asked to apologise to the complainant, while two incidents related to social media posts.

Comments were referred to the Members Panel and it was recommended the leader take action.

Two separate complaints were made about the “dismissive” comments on equality during the committee discussion.

But the comments were considered to be of “general nature re urgency of business to be addressed by the council and not intended to be personally offensive” and the matter was not pursued further under the complaints process, the report stated.

Audit and Standards Committee member Councillor Paul Northcott said: “I think we have a duty of care as the county council towards members who are complained about. We all know what it could be like when we’re subjected to a vexatious complaint, how isolated members can feel.

“Members do this as a voluntary thing and the impact of such complaints can be very dangerous when they’re inflicted on certain members.

"Unfortunately, not everybody gets the chance to reply to these in a public forum and can be vilified and subject to a trial by social media.

“I would like to see a commitment built into this that the council will support members going through a particularly difficult time should it arise in the future.”

Councillor Martyn Tittley, who chaired the meeting, said: “We’re not volunteers – although we do it out of love and trying to improve the community, we do get paid for it.

“There needs to be support, given the circumstances we’re in at the moment with Covid-19, where councillors to all intents and purposes are out here on their own.”

Councillor Sue Woodward added: “I’ve been subject to some vexatious complaints in the past and I have to say the staff at the county and district councils have been very helpful.

"That informal assistance and guidance has been very useful and that would be available to all members who find themselves in a position where a vexatious complaint is made.

"If there is vilification on social media there are avenues to follow that through as well.

“Thank you to the staff who are so helpful in guiding people through the complaints process where they’re the one being complained about.

"Perhaps there should be some sort of formal acknowledgement as some members in that position might not be as robust as others and find it quite distressing.

“It was World Mental Health Day over the weekend and there is quite a bit of work being done nationally, including through the Local Government Association, on councillors’ mental health.

"We all find at times we get persistent callers who get an answer but they will not accept that is the reality of the situation.”

Julie Plant, the council’s governance and support manager, said: “This issue came up when we trawled members for views on the LGA (Local Government Association) draft model code of conduct and we have asked them for a view on action that could be taken. We will await their reply and build up from there hopefully.

“Lots of issues raised by the county council relate to the use of social media and that’s something we’ve sought to address in our own code.

“Members of the county council adopt a high standard of conduct but very occasionally we do receive complaints. They generally fall within four broad categories – use of social media, failure to respond to correspondence, the way in which a constituent may have been dealt with and comments made by individual members.

“I have noted the swift action members take when they are made aware a complaint has been made against them, wherever possible acting to remedy the problem and wherever anything more serious has been alleged there has been action taken and conversations taken with senior members or through the panel of this committee.”

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