Council pays consultant €26,000 to watch meetings over bullying claim
A COUNCIL is paying an observer almost €1,000-a-meeting to report on the behaviour of its councillors following bullying allegations.
Documents obtained by the Irish Independent under freedom of information rules show Sligo Borough Council has paid a human resources consultant to attend 27 of its meetings over the past year-and-a-half.
Wicklow-based Declan Naughton was hired to write reports on the behaviour of councillors at the meetings after an investigation found one of them, Independent Declan Bree, guilty of "bullying and inappropriate behaviour" towards staff.
Mr Bree's alleged behaviour led to a walk-out of officials in November 2008. Since February last year Mr Naughton has been paid over €26,000, including VAT, to observe the meetings and write reports on the councillors' behaviour.
The council said it hired Mr Naughton as it had a legal obligation to ensure the health and safety of staff members.
His presence at the meetings was intended to be "a safeguard" to ensure alleged unacceptable behaviour did not reoccur. However, despite his attendance at meetings for the past 18 months there are still concerns over the treatment of officials in the council chamber.
In recent days the council indicated the independent observation of meetings would continue for some time to come. Last Friday, it placed an advertisement inviting new tenders for the work in a bid to keep costs down.
Mr Naughton is currently being paid €960 to attend meetings and write reports. The payment includes travel, overnight expenses and VAT.
Mr Bree, who denies bullying and disputes the findings of the council investigation, described the retention of an observer as "a waste of money".
"That is the view of everyone in the community. Given the shortages of funding in local authorities, it is hard to understand why this is continuing and this money is being spent."
However, in a letter to councillors, Sligo county manager Hubert Kearns defended the council's approach.
He said the council had to act after being put "on notice" of possible High Court proceedings in relation to bullying allegations. Mr Kearns said the costs were "regrettable", especially "at a time of great financial scarcity and uncertainty".
"This money could have been put to much more productive use. However, the legal requirements on the borough council under the Safety, Health and Welfare Act 2005 to provide a safe place of work for its employees must be met," he said.
In reports seen by the Irish Independent, Mr Naughton highlighted what he deemed as "inappropriate" comments by Mr Bree at meetings on September 13 and November 1 last year.
He also described as "inappropriate" the manner in which Mr Bree questioned staff at meetings on December 6 and 22 last. Mr Bree described some of the findings against him as "absurd".
However, last night Mr Naughton said he stood over his reports. He also confirmed he would be tendering to continue his monitoring work.