Monday 27 March 2017

No bullying found but council still runs up bill of €54,000 on expert

Treacy Hogan Environment Correspondent

A LOCAL authority is continuing to pay a bullying expert almost €1,000 a meeting to monitor the behaviour of its councillors -- despite finding no evidence of bullying in the past two years.

Human resources consultant Declan Naughton is to be paid €19,000 this year for sitting in and taking notes on the conduct of those attending Sligo Borough Council meetings.

The council decided to retain Mr Naughton despite having introduced cuts across the board in expenditure and services, including a 30pc reduction in supports to local and community groups.

Documents obtained by the Irish Independent reveal Wicklow-based Mr Naughton has already been paid €35,000 for observing and reporting on meetings over the past two years.

In that time, he has found no evidence of bullying of the council staff by councillors.

But the council has now set aside another €19,000 for Mr Naughton, who runs a company called Organisation Solutions, to continue attending monthly meetings throughout this year and to report back on the interaction between councillors and staff.

This will bring to €54,000 the amount the council will have spent on having a private HR consultant to observe and report on all its meetings.

Mr Naughton was hired by Sligo county manager Hubert Kearns after an investigation claimed independent councillor Declan Bree was guilty of "bullying and inappropriate behaviour" towards staff.

Mr Bree, who yesterday denied any bullying and disputed the findings of the council investigation, described the retention of an observer as "a waste of money".

"There has been absolutely no bullying whatsoever," he told the Irish Independent. "This is an attempt to muzzle councillors and money is being squandered."

Documents obtained by the Irish Independent under freedom of information rules show that between June and December last, Mr Naughton consistently reported that the "behaviour and conduct of the councillors" was "entirely appropriate and did not present any risk to staff of the council present at the meeting from a health and safety viewpoint".

Generally, the reports concluded that the meetings were conducted "in a business-like and professional manner by all present". In his report on the September meeting, Mr Naughton said that criticism by Mr Bree of the county manager for alleged inaction on an issue was "inappropriate".

However, he concluded that overall the meeting was carried out in a proper manner "by all present".

Mr Bree denied yesterday that his questioning of the manager was inappropriate.

Invoices show that the expert has billed the council between €756 and €968 per meeting, including VAT.

Mr Naughton was paid a total of €35,000 between February 2010 and December 2011.

Councillor Sean McManus said yesterday that the entire matter could have been thrashed out without having to hire in a consultant.

"At a time of acute financial cutbacks, the idea of employing someone to observe and report on the council meetings is ridiculous," he said. "This is a gross waste of public funds when our budget is being slashed by central government."

Mr Bree has proposed that audio recordings of council proceedings be transmitted on its website.

The county manager has defended the hiring of the observer after being put on notice of possible High Court proceedings in relation to bullying allegations.

The council has a legal obligation to ensure the health and safety of staff members, he said.

Mr Kearns said the costs were regrettable, especially at a time of great financial uncertainty.

Irish Independent

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