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Punishment given to Flintshire politician ‘way too lenient’

Flintshire councillor Bernie Attridge (Pic: Local Democracy Reporting Service)

THE PUNISHMENT given to a Flintshire politician for sending sexualised messages to a vulnerable resident has been slammed as “way too lenient”.

Bernie Attridge, former deputy leader of Flintshire Council, was suspended from being a councillor for four months at the end of April.

It followed an Adjudication Panel for Wales (APW) tribunal, which found the Connah’s Quay Central representative breached the local authority’s code of conduct on seven occasions.

The findings were discussed by the council’s standards committee this week after the independent councillor was also sanctioned for acting in a bullying and disrespectful way towards officers.

The authority’s chief governance officer Gareth Owens said news of Cllr Attridge’s actions had been met with “a degree of revulsion” within the organisation.

Several councillors said they felt it had significantly damaged the council’s reputation and harmed public trust in local politicians.

Among those who condemned the panel’s punishment for not being strict enough was Cllr Richard Jones, deputy leader of an independent group previously headed by Cllr Attridge.

The Buckley Bistre East councillor said he was so concerned that he was now considering whether to stand at the next local election.

He said: “My view is that he has done us a disservice and I don’t think they (the APW) realise that.

“When the majority of people think a sanction is too light, then it’s too light.

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“We know it’s the wrong decision, even though we can’t change it and that’s a problem for us.”

He later added: “It’s all about trust and it’s undermined our position. If the sanction had been very heavy, it would have sent a signal out to both the people who watch us and councillors to know where they stand.

“I’m going to consider whether I stand again, based upon that sanction and that’s the effect.”

A complaint was made against Cllr Attridge after he was contacted in March 2021 by a Flintshire resident seeking help to find a council house for her granddaughter.

The woman was receiving support from social services at the time after being identified as a vulnerable adult.

Messages were exchanged between the complainant, named only in the panel’s report as “Ms M”, in which Cllr Attridge made a number of sexualised comments.

After contacting housing officers to seek assistance with her case, he was said to have become “rude and threatening” when they were unable to help and showed a similar attitude towards Mr Owens.

Describing the impact of Cllr Attridge’s conduct, the authority’s monitoring officer said: “A number of people within the organisation have privately expressed some concern about his return.

“They have expressed to me a measure of revulsion about Cllr Attridge’s actions.

“There is some anxiety amongst the officer cohort, particularly amongst female officers, about having to deal with him and being concerned that they might be subjected to inappropriate behaviour on his return.

“Realistically, I think that’s probably unlikely, but the anxiety itself is understandable.”

In deciding Cllr Attridge’s punishment, the panel said physical and mental health issues he was suffering at the time of the breaches were considered.

They also cited his previous record of good service and the fact he had apologised for his behaviour.

However, the standards committee’s vice chair Mark Morgan said there was a high level of concern in the community about the case.

He said there was also a risk of further reputational damage to the council upon Cllr Attridge’s return to office.

Mr Morgan said: “When I’ve been to meetings over the last two or three weeks, the strength of feeling has been very strong in that this is way too lenient a sanction.

“It’s certainly something that I concur with, and I do think we should give that feedback if the opportunity arises.”

Cllr Marion Bateman said she was upset that his behaviour was also affecting the public’s view of other council members.

She said: “Like most members, I’m very distressed about Mr Attridge and what he’s been found to have been doing.

“I think that councillor should be given training, but I feel very upset by the fact that we are being tarred with his brush.”

Committee members recommended  Cllr Attridge should undergo safeguarding training ahead of his return and for an independent mediator to speak to him about his conduct.

They also requested for a letter to be sent to the APW, highlighting their concerns about the leniency of his punishment.

A spokesperson for the panel said: “The Adjudication Panel for Wales is an independent judicial body. As such, it cannot comment on decisions.

“The decision report sets out the decision of the panel and its reasons.”