Revealed: £114k cost of town council bullying row
- Credit: Sonya Duncan/Breckland Council/A
The staggering cost of a lengthy and heated row which saw two councillors accused of "harassment, bullying and intimidation" has been revealed.
Attleborough Town Council has forked out more than £114,000 in taxpayers' money since the extraordinary saga first erupted in March last year.
The accused councillors, Taila Taylor and Ed Tyrer, have been paid a total of £27,500 in damages, with another £43,000 settling legal costs.
Last week, the pair received a public apology from ATC after it was concluded the allegations were "false" and formed part of a "malicious campaign".
On Thursday, full details of the events which led to a judicial review of the council's conduct were released for the first time.
Reacting to the report's publication, Miss Taylor said: "I’m really pleased the report has made it to the public domain and that residents now have the opportunity to understand for themselves how this come around.
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"The agreed damages does not reflect the distress, upset and damage to my reputation, and the sum agreed was less than my solicitor advised me was payable.
"However, I wanted to put my claim against the council behind me, to enable the council to move on."
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The judicial review report, penned by Attleborough mayor Phil Leslie at the request of an investigation committee, shows an attempt by the then town clerk Gina Lopes, former mayor Tony Crouch and councillor Keith Montague, to organise a HR review into "member issues" at the council.
In December 2019, Lovewell Blake, who had agreed to carry out the consultation, pulled out over concerns confidential information had been disclosed to the public.
Another solicitor, Nicholas Hancox, later recommended contacting Breckland Council's monitoring officer "if councillors Crouch and Montague believe councillors Taylor and Tyrer have failed to meet the standards of the council’s code of conduct".
Notes from a subsequent meeting with the Breckland officials refer to an agreement that mediation "would be the best course of action".
However, in a subsequent email to Mr Montague, Ms Lopes called the prospect of mediation a "cop out", before writing to the district council's CEO to criticise a "lack of support".
In spite of Breckland's suggestion of mediation, unnamed staff members enlisted workers' union, Unite, to help issue a formal grievance.
Writing to Mr Crouch, a regional officer from Unite highlights a "systematic and sustained campaign of bullying and harassment" from Miss Taylor, Mr Tyrer and fellow councillor, Lucan Grave.
The report goes on to detail discussions between councillors Crouch and Montague, Ms Lopes, Nicholas Hancox and a Unite representative, regarding a motion to remove Miss Taylor and Mr Tyrer from their committee duties and the latter from his deputy mayorship.
Weeks later the row went public, as it became clear eight members of the 15-strong council were set to sign the motion.
Police were called to Attleborough Town Hall as more than 50 protestors crammed into the chamber.
Claims of "bullying" emerged a week later and were publicly backed by Mr Crouch.
The report says some of the eight signatories of the motion "became hesitant" about the chosen course of action, leading to an email from Ms Lopes in which she encouraged their cooperation.
She wrote: "Please, please, please don’t give up now.
"We have endured this awfulness for a long time now and yes it has reached a dreadful state, but I truly believe it can be turned around if we all continue to stand together."
Mr Leslie writes in his report that "at no time was the prospect of a judicial review against the town council ever mentioned, nor was the recommendation of meditation raised".
Miss Taylor and Mr Tyrer were then officially stripped of their committee roles at a meeting the press and public were barred from attending.
With the divided town council in disarray, a parish meeting in March 2020 saw 200 people demand a referendum which could ultimately have led to the entire council's resignation.
The referendum, or parish poll, was put on hold amid the coronavirus pandemic and never took place.
In May 2020, with the saga still rumbling on, the council and its members received an email from solicitors Rogers and Norton, acting on behalf of Miss Taylor, so say judicial review proceedings would soon be issued.
In July, a High Court judgement concluded that the action previously taken against Miss Taylor and Mr Tyrer had been "unlawful".
The pair were reinstated to their committee roles, before Ms Lopes was sacked from her role as clerk in January.
Miss Taylor is to pay half of her £20,000 in damages to a project benefitting the town as part of the Attleborough Neighbourhood Plan.
Mr Leslie admitted there had been a "systematic failure" within the council to follow correct procedure.
He added: "The way the council acted throughout this period was unacceptable and caused huge disruption and distress for specific individuals and the town.
"I acknowledge the utter waste of money resulting from these unlawful actions, a sum of money that should have been put to far better use during very trying times."
But Miles Hubbard, Unite's regional officer, insisted that those who made accusations of bullying had wanted mediation.
And he added that the High Court judgement had not actually addressed their grievances.
Mr Tyrer has been contacted for comment.