AN outspoken opposition Farnham Residents councillor has accused Waverley Borough Council of “wasting time and public money” after he was ticked off by the council’s standards panel last Friday for “the forbidden sin of questioning officers’ advice”.
The panel, chaired by Tory councillor for Blackheath and Wonersh Michael Goodridge, convened on February 1 to consider two complaints against Farnham Castle councillor Jerry Hyman - specifically relating to a “lack of respect for some officers and a member” and an alleged breach of the council’s code of conduct.
It related to comments by Mr Hyman made during two planning committee meetings in 2016 and 2017, accusing council officers of “misinforming” councillors, specifically in relation to the European Habitats Directive.
In one case Mr Hyman accused officers of “misquoting” the directive, and told another meeting: “I thought we were here as councillors because there are occasions when the advice we receive is wrong, otherwise we wouldn’t need any councillors.”
He later claimed a victory in his long-held belief that “proper assessment” of the impact of new homes on the special protection areas surrounding Farnham, as required under the directive, had not been carried out, after a May 2018 ruling by the European Court of Justice seemed to confirm his view.
But, despite this vindication, both joint planning committee chairman Peter Isherwood and the borough solicitor Daniel Bainbridge opted to pursue complaints against the opposition member.
In the latter’s case, Mr Bainbridge considered Mr Hyman’s comments so serious that in his complaint he concluded that he would have to consider “whether I am able to provide a legal advisor to any committee or meeting of which Mr Hyman is a member”.
These complaints were presented to the standards panel last week and, in conclusion, it found that while Mr Hyman had breached the council’s code of conduct by “failing to treat two legal officers with respect”, he “was acting in his capacity as a member of Waverley Borough Council”.
Waverley’s code states that members should avoid criticising officers “particularly at meetings open to the public” and “avoid actions or words that may appear to others to be attaching blame to an officer” or “serve to undermine the professionalism and integrity of officers”.
However, in a decision notice published after last Friday’s meeting, the panel also noted that the code “is not intended to stifle the expressions of passion and frustration that often accompany discussion about the efficient running of the council”.
“The panel fully accepts that members can and should be allowed to challenge officers,” it continued. “However, it is important that members do this appropriately and in a way that treats officers with respect.”
It also found that Cllr Hyman’s conduct towards officers, while “crossing the line”, was not “deliberately malicious” - and so resolved to “make it clear to Cllr Hyman that such conduct is not acceptable”.
Speaking to the Herald this week, Mr Hyman dismissed the hearing as a “fiasco, a waste of time and public money that resulted in me being found extremely guilty of being a little bit naughty” - adding that rather than “to establish the facts about this situation”, as the report to the panel claimed, the real issue at hand was “the forbidden sin of questioning officers’ advice”.
Explaining his rationale for taking the matter to a hearing, rather than agreeing an “informal resolution”, he said: “I had to demonstrate that, ultimately, the authorities and politicians cannot gag or constrain elected residents if we are doing our duty and telling the truth.”