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‘Bullying’ and thousands spent on lawyers - what has been happening at this parish council?

PUBLISHED: 06:30 28 May 2018 | UPDATED: 09:59 29 May 2018

Councillor Laura Stango Photo: Submitted

Councillor Laura Stango Photo: Submitted

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Dog bins, charity grants and grass cutting fill the agenda at most parish council meetings.

Mundesley Parish Council office Photo: ANTONY KELLYMundesley Parish Council office Photo: ANTONY KELLY

But a long-running row at one has led to the secret recording of phone conversations, thousands of pounds spent on lawyers and alleged bullying.

Police were also called in during the dispute.

The saga began at a Mundesley Parish Council meeting on March 21, 2016 when councillors began questioning their clerk.

The clerk had asked about her working part time for another parish council, Overstrand, which led to a question from Councillor Laura Stango about her health and employment.

The parish council at the picturesque seaside village has been hit by controversy Photo: iwitness/Julie CameronThe parish council at the picturesque seaside village has been hit by controversy Photo: iwitness/Julie Cameron

The clerk became “visibly upset” by the questioning, according to lawyers who were later brought in to investigate and it sparked rows which continue to today.

The clerk put in a grievance about Cllr Stango and the councillor was reprimanded by a standards hearing for “bullying”.

But former councillor Leigh Caudwell, who said the work of the council was still being undermined, prompting him to now speak out, said Cllr Stango had asked a “perfectly legitimate” question.

“It was not bullying,” he said. “She checked before with the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) if she could ask the question and was told she could.”

The beach at Mundesley Photo: iwitness/Nadine GrayThe beach at Mundesley Photo: iwitness/Nadine Gray

But what followed the meeting was “serious and persistent” bullying of the clerk by Cllr Stango, a standards hearing into her at North Norfolk District Council (NNDC) found last year.

The parish council, however, has disputed the findings of both the standards panel and lawyers who they brought in to investigate at a cost of almost £7,000 to taxpayers.

The lawyer’s report from 2016 said there were two “very distinct camps” on the council - those who supported the clerk and those who backed Cllr Stango.

The report found Cllr Stango had overstepped the line with her questions and then went on a “personal mission”.

The cliffs at Mundesley Photo: iwitness/Robina ChurchyardThe cliffs at Mundesley Photo: iwitness/Robina Churchyard

The lawyers also found Stango wrote “wholly inappropriate” emails about the clerk with “inflammatory” language.

But Cllr Stango’s husband and friends have questioned the lawyers’ report for not interviewing enough councillors who offered a different viewpoint.

“My wife hates bullies,” Mario Stango said. “Bullying sounds really bad but she just asked a question about employment.”

He said he believed the lawyer was on a “fact-finding mission”. “They did not say it was an investigation into my wife,” he said.

Mr Caudwell also said councillors believed they had instructed the lawyers to look into the clerk’s grievance - but it turned into an investigation of Cllr Stango. That led to a delay paying them until the end of 2017.

However, the NNDC standards hearing backed up the lawyer’s findings.

It said Cllr Stango sent one email to fellow councillors called “Mrs W’s lies”, and went to a meeting of Overstrand Parish Council to try to stop them appointing Mundesley’s clerk.

She was ejected from that meeting and brought the reputation of Mundesley Parish Council into “disrepute”, the hearing found.

They recommended Cllr Stango should be reprimanded but in January this year Mundesley Parish Council rejected their recommendations and have stood by their vice chairman.

The standards hearing was also told Cllr Stango secretly recorded telephone conversations she had with an employee of another council, which the panel said was “completely unacceptable”.

Mr Stango said his wife had secretly recorded conversations “because of lies being told”. “She did it to cover her back,” he said.

And he described the standards hearing as a “circus”.

He claimed the standards officer met other witnesses but not his wife - something NNDC denies.

He also said the parish council chairman, who came to give evidence for Cllr Stango, was told he could not - again something NNDC said was not the case.

“Mrs Stango was afforded an extensive period to allow her to present her case at the hearings,” an NNDC spokesman said.

Separately, Cllr Stango also reported another councillor to police in 2016 when he shut the door and it hit her arm.

He was interviewed and police took no further action.

Mr Caudwell, a former police detective, said councillors stood by Cllr Stango because the majority of them were at the March 2016 meeting “and could see it was not bullying”.

But he said some people in Mundesley were still trying to undermine Cllr Stango and the work of the parish council on social media, which is why he had come forward.

When we asked the parish council to comment on these issues, they referred us to minutes from meetings where the issues were raised, which failed to answer any of our questions.

The former clerk declined to comment.

•Row over lights cost £3,000

The bullying row is not the only controversy to hit the council.

Thousands of pounds worth of floodlights it put up had to be taken down because of a dispute.

Mundesley Parish Council spent £3,000 on the lights on the seafront green to tackle vandalism.

But in March, North Norfolk District Council (NNDC) told them to take them down as they did not have planning permission.

The parish council’s planning committee were told by chairman councillor Laura Stango in March that they had asked NNDC before putting them up and were told “they could not see an issue with the lights”.

But NNDC contradicted this. A spokesman said neither planning consent nor advice was sought.

They then told Mundesley they were unlikely to get permission because of their “design and intensity”

The parish council removed the lights and wrote to NNDC “expressing their disappointment”.

•Parish councils

They are often maligned as hotbeds for gossip and portrayed unflatteringly on screen in The Vicar of Dibley and The Casual Vacancy.

But parish councils, the country’s lowest rung of government, control tens of thousands of pounds of public money and what they do impacts their areas.

Mundesley’s parish council, for example, has more than £200,000 in cash and more than £1m in long term assets and investments, according to its accounts.

With that money they look after the area, keep it tidy and give grants to volunteer groups.

Parish councillors are volunteers and are often co-opted rather than elected.

But reports frequently emerge of parish councils running into controversy and Mundesley is by no means alone in having issues.

In November last year Terrington Parish Council in West Norfolk was taken to an employment tribunal for sacking a cleaner who raised concerns about fire safety.

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