A Brighton and Hove councillor who tweeted about the council leader “lying” broke the members’ code of conduct, a disciplinary panel ruled this evening (Monday 6 February).
Councillor Robert Nemeth said that his wording was justified because the Labour council leader Warren Morgan had said that keeping Hove Library open would mean the closure of up to seven branch libraries. In the event none closed.
Councillor Morgan said that he had made the claim in good faith so made a formal complaint – and today a Brighton and Hove City Council Standards Panel upheld his complaint.
The panel found that Councillor Nemeth – a Conservative member for Wish Ward – had failed to treat others with respect. He had also conducted himself in a manner that could reasonably be regarded as bringing his office or authority into disrepute.
The panel’s independent chairman Diane Bushell said: “Having heard from Councillor Nemeth and his witnesses, the panel concluded that Councillor Nemeth had not substantiated the claims he made in his tweet of (Tuesday) 19 July 2016.
“In addition the panel considered that the use the language of ‘liar’ or ‘lying’ is disrespectful and of itself is a breach of the code.
“The panel also considered that if Councillor Nemeth believed that Councillor Morgan had lied, that was a matter that could have been brought through the council’s code of conduct as a standards complaint to be formally investigated.”
The panel recommended that Councillor Nemeth delete the offending tweet and that he should be offered training on the code of conduct and social media protocol for members.
The panel also suggested that the social media protocol was reviewed to encourage a right of reply, for example, through tagging.
Councillor Nemeth had earlier criticised “the months of work that have gone into this” during the standards panel hearing in the council chamber at Hove Town Hall.
He said that it was “wasteful at a time of cuts to services like adult social care”, adding: “We’re not talking white lies here. There were huge consequences.
“Incorrect and untruthful information was disseminated by Councillor Morgan during the campaign to save Hove Library.
“The code of conduct most certainly has not been breached.”
He said: “This exchange in July was so innocuous that I didn’t hear anything about it until September.
“Why? Because alongside this process another group is investigating claims about the Labour Party.”
Asked why he didn’t complain about Councillor Morgan, Councillor Nemeth said: “Ultimately we’re held to account by the public. I don’t think it’s a good use of public money in the slightest.
“For me it’s like water off a duck’s back. There was a conversation happening on Twitter and I just chipped in.
“I fundamentally disagree with the amount of resources that are being put into this.”
It’s no reflection on the individuals involved, he said, but it was a waste of resources when there was so much other need.
But Councillor Morgan said: “The substantive issue here is the language we use about each other in public.”
In his closing statement the council leader said: “It is important that debates between councillors are challenging and robust but conducted in a spirit of mutual respect.
“We have a members’ code of conduct and a social media protocol setting out what is and is not acceptable.
“Our code of conduct and social media protocol mirror the codes of conduct for MPs, where the use of ‘unparliamentary language’ is not allowed. There are sound reasons for that.
“If any councillor believes another has broken the members’ code, and this would include deliberately misleading a committee during the course of decision making, then the correct course of action would be to report that member to the standards board for them to be held to account, not to make unsubstantiated accusations about them on social media.
“It is the nature of politics and public life, sadly, to have to expect and tolerate a degree of personal abuse, particularly online.
“Among members of the public, this is impossible to regulate.
“It should be possible though for councillors to disagree without being disagreeable, and hold each other to account without resorting to personal slurs.
“If we allow that then our rules are worthless, the tone of our debate is lowered and fewer people will feel able to join that debate or stand for election.”
Apart from the independent chairman of the panel, Diane Bushell, the other panel members were Councillor Tom Druitt (Green), Councillor Ann Norman (Conservative) and Councillor Alan Robins (Labour).