At an Adjudication Hearing held this morning the Northern Ireland Local Government Commissioner for Standards imposed a 6 month suspension on Alderman Ruth Patterson (Belfast City Council).
The decision follows a hearing last week at which the Commissioner found that Alderman Patterson had breached the Local Government Code of Conduct. Alderman Patterson was found to have brought her position as a councillor, and the council into disrepute following comments she made at a meeting of Belfast City Council on 3 July 2017. She also concluded that in making the comments she had not shown respect and consideration for others, and had not acted fairly, objectively or in the public interest.
In deciding on a sanction, the Commissioner noted a number of mitigating factors in the Alderman’s favour, including her long service on Belfast City Council with no previous history of misconduct. Alderman Patterson also co-operated with the Deputy Commissioner’s investigation into the complaint made against her.
However, the Commissioner also accepted that there were aggravating factors in this case.
Alderman Patterson’s actions were deliberate and pre-meditated. Although she stated at interview that she was not the author of the speech, she had time to reflect beforehand and had to take responsibility for delivering it.
During the speech she was reminded by the Lord Mayor of the need to choose her words carefully, yet she continued. She also did not take an opportunity to correct her position in the media at a later date. As such the Commissioner decided that her comments, which led to Crumlin Star Football Club reviewing its security measures, were an intentional failure to comply with the Code.
In considering the level of sanction to apply, the Commissioner stated it was important to uphold public confidence in local democracy and the standards regime, and to discourage similar conduct by other councillors. However, any restriction of a councillor’s task to serve the public must be proportionate.
In this case the Commissioner was satisfied that what was said went beyond the acceptable bounds of proper political debate. Taking into account the sanctions guidelines and having regard to the facts and relevant case law, she therefore decided that an appropriate sanction was a suspension of six months.
The suspension is to begin on Monday 11th March and will continue until the end of Alderman Patterson’s term of office.
The Respondent may appeal to the High Court against this decision in accordance with the provisions of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014.
The Commissioner’s detailed Decision Notice on this case will be available by Friday 8th March 2019.