It seems that people like Annette Crowe (the mayor), Bob Barnes (the ex-mayor) and Karen Mitchell, the town clerk, have learned by heart Roger Stone’s simple advice to keep schtum when you are asked a difficult question. Nothing. You don’t reply to emails. When pressed, say you will respond in ‘due course’, but never do. You explain that you have sought advice and are working within the rules (when plainly you are not). And you keep repeating this, again and again.
Eventually, after days and weeks of stonewalling and obfuscation, when the niceties of office politesse have finally been stripped away, and your would-be correspondent sends a direct, crisp, clear request for information within a deadline, it is time to invoke counter-accusation. You accuse them of harassment, citing the frequency and increasingly irritated tone of messages as evidence of their unreasonableness.
If only you could be more polite and friendly, it would be so much better for your cause. Actually, you say, if you are going to adopt that attitude then we refuse to talk to you at all… You know this will enrage your critic, and are pleased for it to do so, since it will give you more evidence that you are being bullied.
Catch-22, it will be remembered is “a set of circumstances in which one requirement, etc., is dependent upon another, which is in turn dependent upon the first”. Welcome to Ledbury Town Council.
Weeks of increasingly frustrating email ping-pong last spring (2015) with Karen Mitchell, Ledbury Town Clerk and Bob Barnes, Mayor concerning the misspent £7 thousand pounds on the Foxley Tagg Partnership, resulted finally in their making a complaint about Liz Harvey and me, both of us town councillors.
We were accused by the Clerk and her Deputy Maria Bradman of bullying. No evidence was ever provided to substantiate this; it was apparently the ‘tone and quantity’ of our emails that were so offensive according to Lynda Wilcox of HALC who had been drafted in to arbitrate. A private two hour meeting with Mrs Wilcox, Paul Winter and Rob Yeoman (town councillors) resulted in the complaint about us being dropped but we were sworn to secrecy and no written record was made (a useful stratagem).
Around this time, another employee of Ledbury Town Council, Barbara Stump, also decided to make an intervention, accusing me of having had an ‘aggressive confrontation’ with a member of the public at a council meeting (this in the run-up to the election in 2015).
‘I was at that meeting as an observer in the public area,’ said Barbara in an email circulated to all town councillors. ‘Although I did not hear every word that you said, it was clear that you were aggressive. I was so taken aback by your unpleasant tone to a member of the public, that I immediately left my seat and reported to the Clerk and Deputy what I had seen and heard: they recall this. I am also aware that another member of the public sitting at the rear of the Market House that evening witnessed the incident and was astonished.’
For the record, this incident did take place, but not as Mrs Stump perceived it. A scurrilous rumour was being put about widely among councillors and their friends around the town that Cllr Liz Harvey had committed fraud during the previous summer’s Neighbourhood Plan consultation.
According to Mr Neil Doran, a local resident and one-time members of the Neighbourhood Plan Group, Liz Harvey had systematically tampered with the public responses as to the location of housing and retail provision. When, at the Council Meeting of 18 February, I told Mr Doran very quietly that I knew about this rumour, without accusing him, he became very angry and I walked back to my seat. So there it is: an aggressive confrontation, more evidence of bullying by ‘Hadley’. No complaint against me was ever made, the diversionary slur was sufficient. Nor was Mrs Stump ever disciplined for her grossly unprofessional accusation: the Clerk said she had dealt with the matter ‘appropriately’.
Out of deference to Karen Mitchell and her colleagues, I wouldn’t normally mention these things; they are, after all public officials, not elected politicians. The reason for my doing so, is that neither Mrs Mitchell nor Mrs Bradman, nor other staff are content to let sleeping dogs lie. They have acted in the most flagrantly biased way, quite against their professional code of conduct. They have continued to circulate the falsehood that Liz Harvey and I are bullies. Not just them, for Bob Barnes and Rob Yeoman also skip around the council repeating this fiction to all and sundry. It also goes further up the political food chain.
At the Ledbury election hustings event in May 2015, local MP, Bill Wiggin, upbraided me in full public for bullying the clerk (‘his friend’) and her team. He said that that I was completely out of order and that such antics could not be tolerated in any circumstances. On election day, May 7, the normally jovial Mr Wiggin loudly repeated this story to a group of people, including Annette Crowe, outside the polling station at Ledbury Community Centre. Where next? In parliament? Really Mr Wiggin, haven’t you got better things to do than repeat such politically motivated tittle-tattle?
After the recent dissolution of the Neighbourhood Plan Working Group, Maria Bradman, the deputy town clerk, spent a day or two soliciting potential ‘volunteers’ for the new Neighbourhood Plan group including members of the public and town councillors. She wasted little time in explaining to potential recruits that the previous ‘hateful personalities’ that had created the ‘poisonous atmosphere’ of the previous group, would be absent.
Wasn’t it Joseph Goebbels who said that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth? So while the gossip goes around and again, it becomes commonly accepted fact that yes, Liz Harvey and I are in fact bullies. In the unreal world of Trumpton politics, none of the allegations of financial irregularity concerning the Foxley Tagg £7k were true. The Clerk and the Mayor were victims of a vicious slur on their good names. Bob Barnes didn’t lie to the press and invent a fictional story about me. Why should he apologise as requested by Herefordshire Council?
What all these pitiful incidents show is that when cornered, councillors and staff of Ledbury Town Council have the aggressive instincts of spitting cobras. They play with the truth and make up what they don’t know, which is a lot. Lies are deployed like grape shot. Rules and procedures are used and abused, mostly to confound scrutiny, but never to illuminate the truth. When raw nerves are touched, they fake offence as expertly as a Premiership team of diving footballers.
It started looking like incompetence and stupidity, a last hurrah from the dusty old fossils kicking about the shadows of the Market House. What now emerges is something altogether more sinister, an organised conspiracy by the Ledbury political establishment to crush opposition, and to stamp on dissent. The defamation, lies and systematic political bullying is calculated to send out a clear message to anyone wishing to shake things up for the better. In this town, alternative voices will not be tolerated, they will be destroyed.
As the great fictional President of House of Cards, Frank Underwood said, ‘democracy is so overrated’.