AN INDEPENDENT Coventry councillor will face an ethics committee hearing at the City Council today (November 20), in a row over a social media post he directed at the authority’s planning department.
But critics have accused senior figures at the Labour-run council of double standards and abuse of its own disciplinary and complaints system.
They say Coun Glenn Williams (Independent, Bablake) is being hauled before the ethics committee after fairly criticising the council’s planning department – which has recently seen its online planning portal system fail on 477 occasions in three months. It is supposed to enable Coventry residents to view planning applications.
Coun Williams is accused by a senior council officer – Martin Yardley, Coventry City Council, its departing deputy chief executive – of suggesting the planning department is ‘corrupt’, and condoning a Twitter exchange that suggested the head of the planning department should have “his head kicked in.”
The council’s head of planning is his partner and business associate Tracy Miller.
But the allegations are viewed by critics as a wild over-reaction and false characterisation of Coun Williams and his actual tweets. They contained no such words, and are viewed by critics to be in line with normal political debate, in which the law affords heightened ‘freedom of expression’ for politicians.
It is not the first time Coun Williams has been subject to disciplinary proceedings, as an outspoken critic of Labour on the green belt and migration. He was also previously removed from the Conservative group on the council.
Mr Williams has refused to apologise ahead of today’s hearing, as he had simply lobbied against the planning department over access to planning documents via its ‘planning portal.’
In January, the councillor was made aware by Coventry residents of regular downtime on the planning portal, which retrieves and displays planning applications for public consultation.
Responding to a separate Freedom of Information request submitted in October, Coventry City Council confirmed its planning portal was inactive – when the website system was down – on 477 occasions between July 4 and October 2 2019.
The request also showed the portal’s average ‘downtime’ – when the system was down – was 27.3 minutes.
In January, Coun Williams raised the issue of planning portal downtime in a Twitter post, which he directed at the official Coventry City Council account.
In it, he wrote, “With the deadline for comments on a major planning application in Keresley coming up on Monday, the @coventrycc planning portal has been down for over 12 hours! Is this an attempt to stop people objecting?? I’ll be asking for an extension to the deadline.”
Another completely anonymous council parody Twitter account replied to the post with: “Tell head of planning to do it or you’ll kick his head in… bullying seems to be the preferred approach in CC these days!”
Coun Williams responded to the tweet, when he wrote: “An interesting approach, but she’s a lady and I would never condone any sort of violence towards women.”
Mr Yardley lodged the official complaint against Coun Williams leading to today’s ethics committee hearing.
He believed Coun Williams had accused the planning department of acting unprofessionally and not treating the body with due respect.
His complaint also included the ‘threat’ posed to the head of planning, Ms Miller, with whom Mr Yardley is in a relationship.
He referred Coun Williams to the council’s monitoring officer expressing ‘extreme concern’ over the councillor’s behaviour, in particular that the councillor had allegedly accused council staff of corruption and had also encouraged a situation where a third party was suggesting that council staff should be assaulted.
Since the complaint, the council launched an independent internal investigation into Coun Williams’ remarks. Speaking to the investigator, Glenn Williams said he had ‘phrased his allegation as a rhetorical question.’
The councillor added that it was not for him to suggest what residents should think, that Twitter ‘involved a lot of banter’, and that he was ‘being provocative’.
He points out he did not accuse the planning department of corruption.
Mr Yardley also levelled the complaint at Coun Williams that he ‘aggravated’ a threat against Ms Miller, by failing to report the “kick his head in” post from the parody account.
The councillor countered Mr Yardley’s second complaint, saying ‘it was totally inappropriate for council officers to be involved in relationships with each other, particularly where one of the officer’s service areas falls within the overall control of the other officer.’
The ethics committee meeting will be chaired by Coun Seamus Walsh (Labour, Sherbourne). The hearing will consider sanctions against Coun Williams, which could include the rebuke of a former ‘censure’ – essentially a ticking-off – and a course of training in the council’s code of conduct.
Among critics is road safety campaigner Richard Heneghan, who has often challenged the council. He tweeted on his @KovBlog Twitter account: “Glenn Williams is being brought before the Ethics Committee for daring to question a Planning Dept whose Planning Portal was ‘down’ 477 times in less than 3 months’. None of these Labour councillors were hauled before ethics though?”
His tweet then linked in to previous Coventry Observer stories about breaches of planning regulations by Labour councillors including Rachel Lancaster – which did not result in ethics committee hearings.
UPDATE: Independent Coun Williams was found unanimously by the committee of Labour and Conservative councillors to have breached the council’s Code of Conduct on all three counts and will receive a formal censure, as expected.