Former March mayor Kit Owen has been unanimously cleared of making racist comments by Fenland District Council’s conduct committee.
It took this morning’s meeting less than half-an-hour to dismiss the accusations made by fellow town councillor Martin Field, but members also agreed to review the way the committee works.
Coun Field alleged Coun Owen brought himself and the town council into disrepute at a meeting of the March Christmas lights committee in June by allegedly making comments about Muslims - an accusation Coun Owen denied calling the complaint “vexatious and politically motivated.”
Councillor Sam Hoy, who chaired Thursday’s hearing, said the conduct committee did not have the powers to call witnesses for either side and it was a question of one person’s word against another. It was also a question of if Coun Owen made the comments, whether he did so while acting in his capacity as a councillor.
Conduct committee member Councillor Rob Skoulding was at the Christmas lights meeting when Coun Field alleged Coun Owen said “Muslims all have sharp knives” during a discussion on catering at the upcoming Christmas lights switch-on. Coun Skoulding said there were no such comments made.
Coun Skoulding said he was sitting close to Coun Owen but did not hear any remarks about Muslims and knives.
“The one thing about Kit is he doesn’t know how to talk quietly, if one person hears what he is saying, then everyone hears, and I heard nothing about knives or Muslims - not at that meeting and that’s all I can say,” said Coun Skoulding, who added that an apology made by Coun Owen at meeting of March Town Council was not about the Muslim comment, but was a general apology about possibly causing offence.
Coun Skoulding’s version was backed by fellow town councillor Andrew Donnelly, who was also sitting on the conduct committee. He said: “There is no love affair between Kit and Councillor Field. They banter and bat at each other all the time and this is just a continuation of that.”
However, Tina Gambell, the council’s lead independent person, said: “I am slightly surprised that we were able to hear from Coun Skoulding what happened on that evening.”
She said members of the public were barred from speaking at the hearing and she argued that testimonies should be allowed from other people who were at the lights meeting in the interests of fairness.
Coun Hoy said at past conduct hearings she has had to step down because of information she was aware of and has not been able to give evidence which “may have changed the outcome”.
Coun Skoulding said he had raised the issue of him sitting on the conduct committee and was advised he could.
Carol Pilson, the council’s corporate director and monitoring officer, said Coun Skoulding’s knowledge was useful adding he gave a “factual account” of what he heard and saw.
Coun Skoulding recommended the accusations against Coun Owen be dismissed, which was seconded by Councillor Chris Boden and the committee unanimously agreed.
It was also agreed that discussions would be held on the way future conduct hearings are heard and whether or not to allow witnesses to speak.