Rutland County Council has agreed to cover the legal costs of officers who may want to sue three councillors for defamation.
Such action could cost £150,000 and although council leaders have pledged no blank cheques will be written to meet solicitors’ bills they say they have a duty to protect staff from “damaging” accusations for which no evidence has been offered.
The council would also look to recover its costs from any successful case.
At a special meeting on Monday evening, the council voted to grant an indemnity to support the council’s chief executive and officers to take legal action in their own name for defamation against councillors Richard Gale, Dave Richardson and Nick Wainwright, of the Rutland group of the United Kingdom Independence Party.
A report by council monitoring officer Helen Edwards says the three councillors are accused of suggesting council officers are involved in fraud and corruption, suspect planning approvals, the misuse of public money and the squandering of millions of pounds of grant funding.
The council estimates the cost of any legal action could be about £150,000. If any officer proceeds against the group and wins the case, any costs incurred by the council would be recovered. Damages would be awarded to the officer taking the action.
According to the monitoring officer’s report, which was discussed at the meeting on Monday, the allegations made by the three councillors on their website 4Rutland were “seriously defamatory of officers”. The allegations have now been removed from the website.
Rutland County Council leader Roger Begy (Con) told the meeting the accusations were damaging and no evidence had been offered.
He said: “We’ve got to protect our officers. They are doing a first-class job and it is unfair that their future employment is at risk because of these allegations.
“We will do our best to make sure expenditure is controlled and limited but it is our duty to protect our staff.”
The council agreed to back officers in a harassment claims against the three members back in January. The council estimates that, so far, building that case has cost £42,000.
Deputy leader Terry King (Con) said: “These three members have put us in a very difficult situation.
“We do not want to incur these costs but we’ve been left with little choice because we need to support our officers.
“The group has had plenty of opportunity to apologise since January but the website statement is a step too far.”
The recommendation by the monitoring officer to support officers wishing to take legal action was approved by 16 councillors at the meeting. Coun Alan Walters (Ind) voted against and Coun Gene Plews (Ind) abstained.
Despite voting for the recommendation, Coun Gale Waller (LibDem) voiced her worry that there was no cap on financial support.
She said: “I supported the recommendation in January but I have my concerns over this. I do not understand how approving this recommendation will make them improve their behaviour and make them stop making these accusations.
“And I am concerned there is no limit or cap on financial support we can offer.”
Coun Walters said: “Instead of agreeing to pay out hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal fees we should be concentrating all of our time and efforts looking at our future demands for services, and coming up with radical solutions to address those needs with less money.”
Coun Plews abstained because he believes councillors had not been given “full advanced disclosure” on the group’s accusations.
The monitoring officer confirmed that no blank cheque had been written for lawyers. However no limit was set at the meeting.
Councillors were told that if they did not support the employees, the council could face legal action itself in the future from the officers.
Coun Wainwright did not attend the meeting and Coun Gale and Coun Richardson left shortly after it started and before the debate began.
The three councillors were given until Wednesday last week to provide a full and unequivocal retraction and apology to the chief executive and senior officers about the allegations on the website.
The group said last week it had not responded as yet because it was seeking advice from a specialist solicitor. The council has granted an extension until Wednesday.
Following Monday’s meeting, Coun Gale said he left because he believed taking part in the meeting could jeopardise future court proceedings with either defending or proceeding with action themselves.
The group maintains it has done nothing wrong.
Coun Gale said: “If this is going to go to court we need to protect ourselves.
“We have to be careful about what we do and don’t do.
“I feel more relaxed now because as I see it it’s just the council playing its cards.”
Coun Gale added that he group would meet its deadline of Wednesday next week to respond to the council’s request
In a statement following the meeting on Monday, county council leader Roger Begy (Con) said it had been a particularly difficult decision to make; one that members had taken “after careful consideration”.
“Councillors are well aware of the financial risk of taking this route, but feel we have no option,” he said. “If we sit back and do nothing, we are open to constructive dismissal claims from staff as well as recruitment and retention issues.
“In recent years, grant funding has played a key role in some of our most successful projects including Oakham bypass, Catmose College and Oakham CE Primary School.
“Only last month, the three councillors published statements to the national media and online accusing the council of ‘squandering millions of pounds of grant money’. We can only hope this does not reduce our chances of receiving future funding for projects within our local community.
“Going down the legal route is an absolute last resort but one that we are prepared to take in order to protect our officers.
“The quickest and cheapest way to resolve this latest position is for the three councillors to either agree publicly that they have been mistaken and issue a full apology, or to provide evidence that supports their claims.
“I would urge the three councillors to either agree publicly that they have been mistaken and issue a full apology, or to provide evidence that supports their claims.”
Rutland County Council met in January to consider taking legal action against councillors Gale, Richardson and Wainwright.
The authority deferred a decision to sue them for defamation itself and the Minister for Justice later said authorities could not sue for defamation.
At the January meeting councillors did vote to support officers wishing to take legal action in their own name for harassment by the same three councillors.
At the time the three were the only members of the Rutland Anti-Corruption Group. which they folded in June and joined UKIP.
The council says the legal bill for the harassment case is £42,000 so far. It also confirmed it is still being pursued even though the councillors have joined a different party.
The council also voted to introduce a single point of contact through the council’s internal e-mail and to authorise sufficient funds to support these actions.
A report to Monday’s meeting by council monitoring officer Helen Edwards, said: “The behaviour complained of has continued and the press release issued upon them becoming UKIP members airs matters publicly, and with the apparent support of a national political party.
“It is appropriate to commence legal proceedings for defamation and/or harassment, as the continued actions of these councillors is upsetting to officers, and damaging to their reputations, and to the reputations of the authority as a whole.
“Attempts to resolve the matter by correspondence have been unsuccessful, hence legal proceedings may need to be issued to resolve the matter.”
To see the monitoring officer’s report in full, visit www.rutland.gov.uk