Disagreements about overspending at Brightlingsea Town Council (BTC) may be linked to the resignation of a councillor who claims she was bullied.
Sue Walsh, who resigned in December, was part of a small team of councillors working to bring the council’s finances back on track after it was found to be running a deficit of around £30,000 a year.
The council’s precept – its share of council tax – is likely to rise as a result.
At BTC’s recent full council meeting on January 18, Mrs Walsh spoke from the public gallery. “In 2022 the overspend on this council was £70,000. In March 2023 the overspend was £97,000,” she said.
She claimed improvements to the playground on the Promenade and the purchase of a “piece of equipment” – believed to be a £40,000 multi-purpose tractor bought in late 2021 – had caused the overspend.
“What is the under or overspend at the moment and what do you predict it will be at the end of this year?” she questioned.
In reply, Cllr Dave Atkinson – who had been working with Mrs Walsh on revising the council’s budgets – said: “There’s still three months to go [until the end of the council year] but we might get pretty close to a balanced budget, which is obviously better than we anticipated.”
Mrs Walsh hasn’t said what exactly drove her to resign, and it’s not known if the incident took place in or away from a council meeting. However, on social media in December she commented: “I resigned because I was concerned about the management of finances and because I was bullied.”
It’s understood that she has made a formal complaint to the monitoring officer at Tendring District Council, which has responsibility for town and parish council governance in the area.
TDC told Brightlingsea Info that any complaints under the Members’ Code of Conduct were confidential, particularly in the early stages of an investigation, and wouldn’t confirm whether or not a complaint had been received.
In 2021 BTC was subject to investigation after another female councillor complained of bullying and resigned. A subsequent report found a “toxic” working atmosphere, with a “high level of animosity between certain councillors which goes beyond mere differences of opinion”. Disagreements were said to have descended into “sniping, nitpicking and bickering”.
At the BTC meeting, Cllr Mick Judson said;” I didn’t see the Sue Walsh incident but I have witnessed bullying on this council.”
He added: “It demeans the poor person on the end of it and it’s totally unhelpful to good relations between people, but it has happened. I’ve seen somebody treated very,very badly on this council.”
Cllr Mat Court said: “There have been instances when I have not been comfortable with certain things and the conduct of other councillors.” He added that he had dealt with issues himself, but regretted doing so as they should have resolved “by the book”.
Answering a member of the public who suggested that the many of the recommendations made in the TDC report had been “swept under the carpet”, Cllr Mick Barry – who was mayor when the report was released – said that the council had changed the way it worked in response.
“Looking around the table I really don’t see anyone who is harassing or bullying. We wouldn’t tolerate that,” he said, adding that the council was “wholly committed to inclusivity and the encouragement of people to come and stand for council”.
But Cllr Court suggested that very few of the recommendations had been acted upon, including long-term strategy, treating officers and councillors with respect, councillor training and managing the clerk’s work schedule to ensure councillors aren’t wasting her time.
“We’ve not really touched them,” he claimed.
Town mayor Ric Morgan said that as the matter had been referred to TDC, the town council could not act as judge as it was not a court.
But he strongly refuted any suggestion that the council was anti-women. “I find that very difficult to hear,” he said.