THE Leader of the Woking Liberal Democrats looks set to face investigation for ‘unethical behaviour’ – despite having an apology accepted by his Conservative counterparts.
Last week, the council’s Head of Democratic Services, Peter Bryant, confirmed via an email that a grievance submitted by Deputy Leader of the local Conservative Group, Councillor Melanie Whitehand, about Cllr Will Forster would be referred to a formal inquiry.
Such matters are subject to confidentiality restrictions, but Mr Bryant was able to confirm to the News & Mail: “A complaint against Cllr Forster is being dealt with in accordance with arrangements adopted by the council.
“It is not my practice to comment publicly on such complaints.”
The Conservatives allege that Cllr Forster, who has led the Liberal Democrats in Woking for two years, has made false statements about the borough’s ruling Tory councillors in recent months.
One such incident refers to a letter Cllr Forster sent to the News & Mail in July. In it, he states that Conservative Councillor Ayesha Azad, who represents Mayford & Sutton Green, failed to attend a meeting about green belt development in her ward – despite the fact that she did attend.
Cllr Forster says he has apologised for the miscommunication. He explained: “After receiving the complaint I found the letter in question that was published in the News & Mail.
“In this letter, I said: ‘Neither Councillor Azad nor [Carl] Thomson attended the meeting to speak in defence of their respective wards, so I am surprised to see that they have now woken up to the plans and are criticising the Development Plan Document in their communities.’
“I often write down who is in attendance at the start of a formal meeting, but I clearly either missed Ayesha or she arrived later.
“I should have checked the official minutes before writing the letter. As it turns out, I was wrong and I have apologised about this.
“In my letter, I clearly meant to say that both Cllrs Azad and Thomson did not speak at the Executive meeting and criticise the DPD from a ward perspective. However, that is not what was written and it is not how it comes across.
“Paragraph 4.3 of the council’s Standards Arrangements seeks to resolve complaints and disagreements without the need for a formal investigation.
“That is what I am hopefully will happen now to ensure that the council does not waste money on this.”
The apology was accepted by email by Cllr Azad on Monday, in which she wrote: “I don’t have an issue with you being critical in your role as opposition leader, but it has to be factually accurate, otherwise we all look a little silly.”
But Cllr Forster could also face action after making remarks concerning a supposed deliberate policy on the part of the Conservatives to ‘drive poorer residents out of Woking’ – an accusation furiously denied by council chiefs.
Furthermore, comments on the council’s governance arrangements, namely a change to the constitution to allow any party to chair the Overview & Scrutiny Committee – Conservatives included – seem set to be looked into.
In a report handed to Cllr Whitehand on Friday 19 January, Mr Bryant rejected the suggestion from Cllr Forster that the Conservatives’ complaint was unwarranted.
He said that had Cllr Whitehand submitted a complaint in respect of just one of the incidents, he might have been minded to dismiss it as political ‘rough and tumble’.
Should the matter move forward, the complaint would be investigated by an independent officer.
If Cllr Forster is found to have breached the council’s Code of Conduct, it will be for the local authority’s Standards & Audit
Committee to determine what action should be taken against him.
Cllr Whitehand said the decision to submit a complaint was not taken lightly.
She added: “We’ve always been clear that Cllr Forster is free to criticise council policy.
“But what he shouldn’t be allowed to do is make false statements about other councillors in a way that he thinks will give him a political advantage. People of Woking expect better from their councillors.”
The dispute comes ahead of the Borough Council Elections in May when all seats will be vacated and contested.