A DORSET town council has been told that it, collectively, needs to consider some of its behaviour at meetings.

The call comes after two Lyme Regis town councillors were found not to have breached code of conduct rules in allegations made by fellow councillors.

The hearing was told that the town council, as a whole, might like to examine its behaviours which could be seen as undermining public confidence in its decision making.

Panel chair Cllr Richard Biggs said he, and fellow panel members, were concerned about the behaviour of councillors at Lyme Regis town council meetings and how it was viewed by the public.

The hearing heard that there had often been ‘difficult relationships’ between some councillors with bad-tempered spats from time to time.

The code of conduct claims include a well-attended meeting a year ago on February 15 to discuss the Oyster and Fish House restaurant in the town run by Mark Hix and, in a separate issue at the same meeting, the town council financial contribution towards the cost of dredging the town harbour – requested to rise from £4,000 to over £40,000.

The meeting had been chaired, for the first time, by Cllr Cheryl Reynolds, in the absence of the Mayor Cllr David Sarson, and was described by the town clerk as possibly the most contentious in a decade.

Complaints about the conduct of Cllr Cheryl Reynolds and Cllr Michaela Ellis, had been lodged by Cllr Belinda Bawden and Cllr Caroline Aldridge.

Investigating officer Jacqui Andrews said she had listened to audio recordings of several meetings and interviewed councillors after the complaints had been made.

One of the allegations was that Cllr Ellis had ‘hammered’ on the door at the home of Cllr Sarson and 'berated' him for standing against her as Mayor.

Cllr Bawden and Aldridge claimed that the visit by Cllr Ellis, the mayor at the time, left Mrs Sarson very upset by the exchange. Cllr Ellis said she had merely tried to explain the tradition of allowing a mayor a second term of office and denied being aggressive. Cllr Sarson had not complained about the incident himself.

The hearing was told that despite a custom of mayors standing for two years the town council’s standing orders clearly state that the Mayoral term is open for re-election each year.

Cllr Bawden told the hearing that the behaviour at Cllr Sarson’s home and an email to all councillors about the mayoral ‘tradition’ amounted to bullying.

The panel heard claims that the conduct of Cllrs Reynolds and Ellis fell short of the standards which might be expected at more than one meeting.

Ms Andrews said at the meetings voices were often raised, by many councillors, and there was often a general feeling of frustration.

At one of the meetings Cllr Reynolds was said to have questioned Cllr Bawden about whether or not she should vote on the town council financial contribution to Dorset Council’s dredging of the harbour because Cllr Bawden was also a Dorset councillor and, therefore, had an interest in the outcome of the vote.

Ms Andrews said Cllr Reynold’s tone at the meeting was ‘brusque’ but did not amount to a violation of the code.

She said that Cllr Reynold’s frequent requests for recorded votes was seen by some other councillors as “intimidatory” although was within the rules of the town council.

Ms Andrews said her investigation had “clearly shown difficult relationships between councillors and behaviours having a far-reaching impact on the reputation of the town council”.

She said all councillors sign up to ‘leading by example’ and to being willing to challenge poor behaviour where it occurs, although many were shy of doing so.

Ms Andrews said the town council, as a whole, might like to reflect on how its behaviours might have a negative impact on public perception and undermine confidence in their decision making.

Nick Maton, an independent person, said he had been asked to look at the behaviour at Lyme Regis town council by Dorset Council monitoring officer, Jonathan Mair. His position at the meeting was not declared and was only discovered afterwards.

He said he had been impressed with Cllr Reynolds’s chairing of the busy public session relating to the Hix restaurant but the situation changed by the time of the discussion about the financial contribution to Dorset Council towards dredging the harbour.

During it Cllr Bawden was challenged by Cllr Reynolds about her position, whether it was in support of the town council or the Dorset Council position. He said that exchange could have been interpreted as a personal attack on Cllr Bawden and, therefore, a breach of the code of conduct.

Mr Maton said towards the end of the debate there was confusion about various votes with Cllr Reynolds asking Cllr Bawden: “So are you a Lyme Regis councillor, a Dorset councillor, or what?” at which point the clerk said the question should not have been asked and there was no need to answer.

Mr Maton said in his view the question was a breach of the duty to treat all councillors with respect and might be seen to bring the council into disrepute.

Cllr Reynolds said, in the past, councillors who sat on both councils, abstained from voting because of what could be seen as a conflict in interest.

Cllr Bawden said she saw the comment as a personal attack: “This was just ‘are you for Lyme Regis, or are you for Dorset Council?’ – it was an unnecessary question, a personal attack,” she told the panel.

Solicitor Anita Williams, assisting Cllrs Ellis and Reynolds, asked the panel to disregard the views of Mr Maton who had been asked by Dorset Council’s monitoring officer, Mr Jonathan Mair, to visit the February 2023 Lyme Regis town council to judge the behaviour of all councillors, but had focused mainly on Cllr Reynolds.

Cllr Reynolds said she was disappointed that the complaints had been made and that, although not breaches of the code, had been progressed to the stage of a public hearing by Dorset Council.

“I work hard as a councillor, for ten years on Lyme Regis and for two years on West Dorset (former district council). I do my best for the town, including running community groups, and I would never dream of bullying or intimidating, but am always forthright in my approach,” she said.

Both councillors were told that the panel had unanimously decided there was no breaches of the code of conduct over the visit to Cllr Sarson’s home or subsequent emails, or by both councillors at various meetings where the panel had found no evidence of bullying or other code of conduct breaches.

“Cllr Reynolds and Cllr Ellis did not bring Lyme Regis Town Council into disrepute and did not breach the code of conduct,” said Cllr Biggs in summary.