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.
“The complaint seeks to ensure those codes are respected and enforced, not for my sake but for the benefit of all councillors and the public.
“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).
A very interesting afternoon. As so often, the undercurrents are more fascinating than the top-level line. I do not think that cllr Morgan won in this, for it brought so much more to the surface, such as his saying today that he had simply to parrot officer assertions (since proved wrong). What’s more, there is today’s news that a branch library – Saltdean – will be given, wait for it, £700,000 even though it was one that cllr Morgan claimed would be chopped if the Carnegie stayed.
It’s important to think before you tweet.
And we pay these people?
as i said, “spring-time panto” == i left at the first unscheduled intermission when Cllr Robins interrupted the “subject Member” Cllr Nemeth in the middle of his submission and the Panel and Independent Person could not agree with themselves to allow Cllr Nemeth to provide context around the alleged “lie” … Cllr Robins’s behavior as such was evidence he made made his mind up already …
The cost of Cllr Morgan’s pursuit of Cllr Nemeth over an obscure tweet he only complained about three months after it went out is concerning. Deeply concerning.
Officer time, lawyer invoicings, the five hours hire of the Council chamber for the Panel Hearing (with minutes taken by a council officer)and the diversion of all that time from work the Council Leader SHOULD otherwise have been doing all needs better justification than I heard over that five hours.
Apparently whether Cllr Morgan was lying by continuing to insist all those libraries would be closed if the Hove Carnegie was retained after he already knew the financial advice from officers no longer stood up was not the issue! Not the business of Panel.
What MATTERED was a fellow councillor calling a spade a spade instead of bothering to put in a Standards complaint of his own or whatever…just no blunt stating allowed. Was this appropriate use of council resources? If the aim was to get Nemeth slapped so Labour could make political capital out of it somehow, then it was immoral to use Council resources for such an exercise.
So calling a lie a lie is wrong but telling aforementioned lie is ok ? council is a really different world
Meanwhile Cll Morgan gets of scot free with tweeting LIES about people spitting at labor party meetings, and gets two meetings of the Labour Party closed down on the basis of false allegations by his friends. All so that he can continue carrying out cuts to public services dictated by Cll Nemeth’s party in central government without being callled to account by the rank and file of the labour and trade union movement. Then people wonder why politicians are held in contempt by the voters??????