A Conservative councillor who repeatedly questioned the official number of rough sleepers on the streets of Brighton and Hove faces a standards panel.
Wish ward councillor Robert Nemeth is due to face the panel next Monday (21 September) after a complaint by Labour councillor Daniel Yates about social media posts made in March last year.
Councillor Yates made the complaint about a post Councillor Nemeth made under a link to a news article on the Brighton and Hove News Facebook page.
The article referred to an audit of rough sleeper figures going before the city council’s Audit and Standards Committee.
In his post Councillor Nemeth wrote: “All councillors know that the figures are fake.
“I’m surprised that the administration is prolonging this story by trying to keep up the deception.”
The matter is listed for hearing before a panel of three members of Brighton and Hove City Council, one from each party, along with independent panel member Helen Aston.
They are being asked to decide whether Councillor Nemeth failed to comply with the code of conduct for members.
The evidence going before the panel includes a letter to the council’s chief executive Geoff Raw and the then chair of the Audit and Standards Committee, Conservative councillor Joe Miller, from Councillor Nemeth.
It was co-signed by two fellow Conservatives – Councillor Mary Mears and former councillor Nick Taylor – and called for an investigation into rough sleeper numbers.
The letter said that the council had claimed a big fall in the number of rough sleepers.
But the letter said: “If the number of rough sleepers on a given date in November had fallen from 178 in 2017 to 64 in 2018, we would be delighted.
“However, the data comes from two different collection methods which cannot be compared.”
In 2017, the council estimated numbers, while in 2018 a headcount was carried out on a cold night during snow, in line with other councils across the country.
An internal audit carried out in February 2019 found that the statistics presented were based on “reliable and relevant data”.
Councillor Yates raised the matter with the council’s executive lead officer for strategy, governance and law, Abraham Ghebre-Ghiorghis.
The former Labour leader wrote: “By stating that the figures are ‘made up’, Councillor Nemeth is bringing the officers’ integrity and professionalism into disrepute.
“He also is bringing this council and his role into disrepute.”
Councillor Yates asked for a written letter retracting the statement and offering an apology.
A report to the panel by council lawyer Victoria Simpson included details of an interview with rough sleeping campaigner Jim Deans.
He agreed with Councillor Nemeth that the figures were “fake” as they were an “inaccurate representation of the situation on the relevant night”.
The report said that Mr Deans considered the term “fake” to mean the same as “inaccurate” or “incorrect”.
The report to the panel said: “It was considered on balance to be more likely than not that the term ‘fake’ would create an impression in readers’ minds that falsified figures were being used by the administration.
“This interpretation was considered to be reinforced by the reference in the online comment which immediately followed to ‘a deception’: a term associated with conduct involving active duplicity.”
Councillor Nemeth stood by his comments and described the action against him as “vexatious”.
Ms Simpson’s report said that there were two “substantive breaches” of the council’s code of conduct, as the post on Brighton and Hove New’s Facebook page would bring the “subject member’s office of councillor and the authority itself into disrepute”.
In her view, Councillor Nemeth’s refusal to provide his version of events or engage with the investigation was also a breach of the code.
The panel hearing is due to be webcast on the council website from 10am on next Monday (21 September).