A Cardiff councillor accused of misconduct following tweets calling the Church of Scientology 'stupid' has been given the all clear by fellow members.
Councillor John Dixon, the executive member for health, social care and wellbeing, was recommended to the standards and ethics committee earlier this year by the Public Services Ombudsmen for Wales, Peter Tyndall, following complaints about his tweet earlier this year..
The message posted on the social networking site Twitter read:
"I didn't know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off."
But members on the standards and ethics committee last night found no evidence of a breach of the councillors' code of conduct, ruling out the possibility of a hearing for the case. The committee concluded Dixon was not acting in his capacity as councillor at the time.
Speaking in the meeting, fellow executive member Delme Bowen said:
"If someone makes comments in a private capacity - which I often do - then the code does not apply. He thought he was making it in a private capacity.
"Failure to comply means rules have to be broken and I think since as citizens we have the right to make private comments there has been no evidence of failure to comply in my view."
Independent manager for standards and ethics Paul Stockton added:
"If you look at the tweets it's very very clear that the councillor is tweeting private statements. I would have thought buying rings is not something he would be doing with his councillor's hat on."
Dixon said he was "relieved" by the outcome.
The case for Dixon
Despite sending the tweet under his username @CllrJohnDixon (now changed to @JohnLDixon) councillors felt a reasonable amount of privacy was expected for councillors. Dixon said he was tweeting in a personal capacity while shopping for an engagement ring for his wife-to-be - and only chose the username because his name JohnDixon was not available.
The media furore surrounding the tweet meant Dixon's followers trebled and a number of people on Twitter came to his defence - a Facebook site was set up in support. Councillors also stood by his side in the meeting yesterday.
Vice chairperson for the standards and ethics committee Anne Morgan was the first to speak in Dixon's favour. She said:
"I think there's no evidence. The only way to know if councillor John Dixon was saying in jest would be to ask him. We are really going down a dark road.
"It's fairly evident it was done in a light-hearted way. I really think that common sense has to rule here today. There's no need for this to be blown out of proportion."
Delme Bowen said:
"There are inconsistencies in the Ombudsman's report. It's clear councillor John Dixon sees the comments he made were made in a private capacity.
"As for the question of disrespect - when I read those [tweets] I want to know were they made in a serious way or a light-hearted way."
Committee agree on twitter 'grey area'
But while Dixon was let off for his miscreant tweets, the committee agreed use of online media was a 'grey area' which needed greater clarity.
Paul Stockton said:
"I think it's an incredibly grey area. Even the Ombudsman is unable to say anything for definite. He only says it 'may' amount to the breach of conduct. I would expect the Ombudsman to say 'they did or they did not' but the language is very strange."
Members were also presented with a report outlining the procedure the committee should take if presented with a similar case in the future and approved the document.
Speaking after the meeting, Dixon said:
"Part of me would have liked a hearing to test the case the Ombudsman assembled, as I believe that there were flaws in the judgement that could have been clarified.
"But I'm relived that it's over, and that the common sense that had been missing up until now has finally been applied."
Inquiry into standards at planning meeting given go ahead
The committee approved a report into the processes of planning committee meetings and decided a meeting with the chair of planning committee and one of the chief planning officers should go ahead.
Members felt the standard of public engagement in the planning committee meetings themselves could be improved.
Community councillor John Hughes who represents the six community councils at the meeting said:
"I feel that sometimes the community councils, having done a great deal of work regarding certain planning applications they have seen, are sometimes not even given an account of our complaint.
"There should be more recognition or what's gone on in the planning process."
Councillor Simon Wakefield added:
"Planning is one of few committees where there's a large number of the public turning up for the meetings. They make an effort to come out and hear the decision.
"Sometimes the acoustics of the room and the respect that the planning officers give to the members of the public is not what I would like to see. I have heard members of the public say 'I can't hear what's going on,' and heard the officer say 'I'm addressing the members not you'. That's not very citizen facing."