POOR and sometimes offensive behaviour from a handful of Dorset town and parish councillors may be putting people off seeking public office or resigning as councillors.

Among the claims is that a small number of councillors have used social media to make racially offensive remarks.

Dorset Council members have been told that there is a widespread lack of faith in the complaints system with many believing the punishments available are too lenient and the system ineffective.

In the case of racial comments Dorset Council’s audit and governance committee was told that because the remarks were made by an un-named individual in a private capacity and not as a councillor, it did not come under the scope of being a disciplinary issue.

The meeting heard that some councils, notably Shaftesbury Town Council, have generated dozens of code of conduct complaints over the years, with occasions when the police were asked to get involved – although the council is seen as being an “outlier” for complaints with a long-history of personal disputes between several individual councillors.

Dorset councillors were told that special measures might be needed to be brought in for Shaftesbury to cut down on the amount of time spent investigating tit for tat complaints between councillors, although the situation is said to have calmed in recent months.

Cllr Robin Legg said he found it staggering that Shaftesbury town council had generated 37 complaints in 18 months and had seen the police called in to investigate 14 complaints over an eight-year period.

“There was always something odd about Shaftesbury town council – they always seemed to be at each other’s throats…it stretches back not just eighteen months, but decades” said the Sherborne councillor.

The committee heard that with 1,400 councillors in Dorset disciplinary hearings and complaints were relatively rare with 54 and 60 over the past two years.

Anthony Bygrave, who heads the Dorset Council corporate complaints team, told the committee that in many cases a simple apology would have stopped many of the formal complaints in their tracks and saved investigations which were costing council taxpayers £30 or more an hour for independent investigators to look into them.

He said that even after investigation many of the complaints were found to have little substance and often boiled down to a difference of opinion, rather than a breach of the councillor code of conduct.

Chief executive of the county association of town and parish councils, Neil Wedge, said all councillors were offered code of conduct and register of interest training, although it was not mandatory. He said there would always be a few who felt they had no need to undertake it, although 800 Dorset town and parish councillors had been trained last year.

Mr Wedge said many simply did not realise the time and cost involved in an investigation or the cost to democracy because people were being put off being councillors.

He said there had been problems in attracting and retaining councillors because of the conduct of a few.

“We have lost some good, community-spirited councillors, because of conduct issues and that’s a sad situation to be in with elections in two years’ time,” he said.

Newly elected Dorset councillor Belinda Bawden from Lyme Regis said the sanctions available were not strong enough and few people saw much point in making a complaint because of that.

She said it was also affecting people’s willingness to stand as a councillor: “It is putting people off applying. People are being put off becoming part of the democratic process,” she warned.

Portland councillor Susan Cocking said that the code of conduct needed to be more robust and claimed that many councillors were fed up with what was seen as a lack of suitable actions which were available when complaints were upheld.

Dorchester councillor Richard Biggs said he believed town of parish clerks often did not intervene in situations which were getting out of hand, when they should have done, because they also feared being intimidated.